WEST LAFAYETTE — Michigan needed 30 seconds to establish the tone.
On the opening possession, Texas Southern’s John Walker III air-balled a 3-pointer. Back on the other end, freshman center Hunter Dickinson caught an entry pass deep in the paint and effortlessly dropped in a jump hook.
The game would never be that close again.
The Wolverines (21-4 overall, 14-3 Big Ten) raced out to a 7-0 start and never looked back, dispatching the overwhelmed Tigers (17-8), 82-66, and earning a matchup against eighth-seeded LSU in the Round of 32 on Monday.
“I like how we came out aggressive,” graduate transfer guard Mike Smith said. “We played defense. We played really hard.”
Nothing got any easier for Texas Southern after the game’s opening sequence. Michigan’s defense blanketed the Tigers’ attack, never allowing them to gain momentum. Through 10 minutes, Texas Southern had just 10 points; in the opening 20 minutes, the Tigers shot a shoddy 28% from the field.
As the game progressed, the sheer talent disparity widened the gap on the scoreboard. Again without senior forward Isaiah Livers, who remains out indefinitely with a stress fracture in his foot, Michigan received contributions from up and down the roster. Eight different players scored over four points, with four in double-figures. It’s the sort of balanced effort the Wolverines will need to make a deep run.
“Offensively, we did a really good job of sharing the basketball,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “If you look at the numbers, each and every guy got an opportunity to shoot a shot when the shot is open, make a play for others.”
Senior guard Eli Brooks drilled two 3-pointers in quick succession to ignite the offense. Freshman guard Zeb Jackson followed with an early spark of his own off the bench, draining a pair of deep 3-pointers — the first ones of his collegiate career. After starting 0-of-5 from the field, Smith, too, rediscovered his knack, tallying nine first-half points.
“It’s all hands on deck,” Howard said. “If you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.”
Michigan’s ability to neutralize Texas Southern’s greatest strength prevented the Tigers from getting back into the game. The 16-seed entered boasting a formidable interior presence, ranking 32nd in rebounding margin. The Wolverines’ sizeable height advantage all but nullified the benefits the Tigers typically reap on the glass, with 37 rebounds to Texas Southern’s 28.
The Tigers, languishing, closed the first half in the same fashion as it began — with an air-balled 3-pointer. Michigan waltzed into the locker room up 18.
As Texas Southern attempted to salvage its sinking season, Michigan stomped on its throat. A corner 3-pointer from junior forward Brandon Johns Jr. pushed the lead to a game-high 24 points with over 15 minutes left to play. The basket capped off a 13-7 spurt to open the half, the Wolverines maintaining their first-half dominance.
Besides guard Michael Weathers, who dropped a game-high 24 points, the Tigers managed to shoot just 33% from the field.
In the final minutes, Texas Southern deployed an aggressive press. One that, for a few fleeting moments, placed the inevitability of a Michigan victory in doubt, the deficit trimmed to as little as 12.
“That’s what this year is all about,” Howard said. “You’re always going to get teams’ best. You’ve just got to be ready to go out there and compete and our guys did a really good job of competing.”
For the Wolverines, the final five minutes seemed to last an eternity. While a 1-seed topping a 16-seed is all but a formality, the game nonetheless served as a reminder the NCAA Tournament makes no guarantees.
Now, as a date with red-hot LSU awaits on Monday, that message becomes all the more relevant.
“A win is a win,” Smith said. “But at the end of the day, it’s just one game at a time.”