DES MOINES, Iowa — Two years ago, when Michigan upset No. 2 seed Louisville to reach the Sweet Sixteen, John Beilein, Super Soaker in hand, crept into the locker room and sprayed water all over his jubilant players.
Luke Yaklich, then an assistant at Illinois State, wasn’t around to experience it. But on Saturday, the Wolverines advanced to the Sweet Sixteen with a 64-49 win over Florida, and afterwards, Yaklich’s light-brown close crop was matted down with water, the product of a celebratory bottle-pouring.
Yaklich was perfectly fine with it — sophomore forward Isaiah Livers said he ran “right for the water.” But if he had been upset and in search of for a culprit, Charles Matthews was to blame.
“He literally said this: Going into the Sweet Sixteen, you’ll know that feeling when you pour water on the head coach,” Livers said. “He said, ‘Think about pouring water on the coaches when they come in here after we win.’ ”
The redshirt junior’s speech came at halftime as Michigan led, 32-28 — a lead that felt like it should have been larger. The Gators were kept in the contest by a 6-for-12 shooting display from outside, uncharacteristic of a 33.4 percent 3-point shooting team. This was even more the case seeing as many of Florida’s threes were tough, closely-guarded attempts.
Eight minutes into the first half, Jalen Hudson heaved a three from several feet behind the arc. Jordan Poole did everything asked of him — he moved his feet, timed his jump and contested the shot well — but the sophomore guard was still left shaking his head as the ball smacked off the backboard and into the net.
“We’ll live with them hitting tough shots,” Poole said. “Not a lot of teams are able to be in a situation where they can make tough shots throughout the entire night, and if they do, tip your hats to them.”
But the Wolverines weren’t about to take off their caps just yet.
First came the strategic adjustment. Point guard Andrew Nembhard ran the Gators’ offense to perfection in the first half, dishing out five assists as Michigan couldn’t stop him from getting downhill out of ball-screen situations. The Wolverines took these away by going under screens to alter Nembhard’s vision and prevent his penetration.
“The guys understood the pattern and the flow of their offense and that’s where the basketball intelligence of our players takes over,” Yaklich said. “They understand what hurt us. They can tweak it, move all over the floor to take that away, and it ends up being good for us.”
At the same time, Michigan’s leaders — Matthews and Zavier Simpson — were there to make sure their teammates kept their composure, continued playing strong defense and trusted that the logical result of good defense would follow.
“They’re really good shooters, so they’re gonna make some of those,” Yaklich said. “But over the course of the game, you just gotta stay true to who you are and not make any lazy decisions at halftime that just take you out of who you are defensively.”
Added sophomore guard C.J. Baird: “The one thing is our leadership and that’s the one thing that keeps us composed. Even if (Hudson’s) shot goes in, Jordan was like, ah come on, I can’t believe that went in. The leaders are like, ‘OK, you played good defense, look at the positives there.’ Everybody’s like, ‘OK, we can still do this, even though that shot went in, we’re still on it all the time.’ ”
And when the Wolverines left the locker room, Matthews made sure they were, indeed, on it.
“First time in the huddle, he came and said, ‘No more threes. No more threes. Let’s limit their threes,’ ” assistant coach DeAndre Haynes told The Daily. “He held it down for us out there.”
What resulted was a second half in which Michigan’s defense, as usual, looked elite to both the eyes and the stat sheet.
Nembhard had just three assists against two turnovers. Florida hit 3-of-14 3-pointers. It scored just 21 points. The Wolverines, meanwhile, scored the first 11 points of the second half, and after weathering an offensive dry spell of their own, dunked the Gators out of the NCAA Tournament.
When it was all said and done, Michigan had not only “shut their water off,” as Matthews demanded, but found its own water, using it to celebrate a 15-point victory.
At this point, you don’t need any more evidence that the Wolverines will ride or die with their defense. It’s their identity, and they’re proud of it. And on Saturday, this meant rejecting the radical idea that opposing players will sometimes hit shots.
Instead, Michigan put its clamps down as hard as it has all season.
“The defensive identity starts with our leaders and our coaching and those guys, like taking pride in your matchup, taking pride in those shots,” Baird said. “I don’t think last year you would have seen Jordan Poole get upset about a shot going in over him. Now, with the culture we brought in and the coaches we brought in, it’s really been important to us.
“It really helps us win games.”