Daily beat writers predict Michigan's NCAA Tournament fate
It feels like many moons ago when the Michigan men’s basketball team fell to an inexperienced Lousiana State, 77-75, in the Maui Invitational.
John Beilein was toying with an 11-man rotation. It was the final straw for Zavier Simpson’s spot in the starting lineup, and Eli Brooks assumed the primary point guard duties. Charles Matthews was the go-to guy.
Things are much different now, of course. That same team is headed to Wichita, Kan. for the first round of the NCAA Tournament, fresh off of a second consecutive Big Ten Tournament title. And as a No. 3 seed, the Wolverines have an even bigger target on their backs.
“I don’t like being the hunted, we’re gonna be the hunters,” Beilein said. “But these days, when we’re the so-called higher-seeded team — I don’t wanna call ourselves the favorite — no, we’re hunting. We’re going after. We had a great taste last year of what it’s like to be in the NCAA Tournament.
“We want to do more. It’s a great ride.”
For the past three seasons, Michigan has trended upward in March Madness. From not making the Tournament at all in 2015, the Wolverines improved to a first round exit the following year and a Sweet Sixteen exit last season. Now, Michigan is riding momentum, and all bets are off as to how its season will end.
So how far will the Wolverines go? The Daily’s men’s basketball beat writers give their best predictions:
Ethan Wolfe: The Wolverines have the talent to be a Final Four team. But will they be one? Yes, yes they will. And why? Because they have all the ingredients that make up a late-March squad: experienced centerpieces, a staunch defense and an offense that — while stagnant at times — can explode at any moment. And with a Big Ten Tournament title stowed away in Ann Arbor, it's clear that Michigan isn’t one to shy away from big moments.
March Madness clichés aside, the Wolverines’ path to San Antonio is challenging, but well within the realm of possibility. Should they top Montana and Houston/San Diego State (and they should), they will likely get a rematch with North Carolina. On a neutral court, given Michigan’s growth, I like its chances to get revenge. If the Wolverines can beat the Tar Heels, they can surely beat whoever they face in the Elite Eight.
Mike Persak: Michigan exceeded the expectations of many this season. A lot of people thought the Wolverines were in a rebuilding year. Except for me, of course. I picked Michigan’s regular season record perfectly at the beginning of the season. This isn’t to brag, I’m just saying that I’m probably the foremost authority in picking how the Wolverines will do.
These days, the script has flipped. It seems like everybody and their brother is picking Michigan to go far. It would stand to reason that I would agree and put the Wolverines in the Final Four. But that’s not how you stay ahead in the business of hot takes. When everybody expects me to zig, I need to zag. For that reason, I think Michigan will lose to Houston in the Round of 32.
Mark Calcagno: Unlike the writer above, I promise I’m not picking the Tournament based off my own arrogance. I’m choosing reason, instead.
First off, I think Montana could give Michigan a closer game than most anticipate. Led by Oregon transfer Ahmaad Rorie (17.2 points per game), the Grizzlies have plenty of talent, and proved their worth in narrow losses to Penn State and Washington in non-conference play. Vegas, as of Monday night, favors the Wolverines by 12. Michigan will have had 11 straight off-days by the time Thursday rolls around. It wouldn’t shock me the Wolverines come out sluggish and flirt with a single-digit win.
And like the Grizzlies, Houston is undervalued as a No. 6 seed, as evidenced by its ranking of No. 17 in KenPom. But even if Michigan survives the first weekend, North Carolina will end its run in the next. The Tar Heels, led by forward Luke Maye’s 27 points, dominated the Wolverines in November — and it wasn’t even as close as the 15-point margin suggested. Michigan was run out of the building within the contest’s first 20 minutes. Yes, freshman Isaiah Livers and redshirt senior Duncan Robinson have both improved defending opposing “4’s” since, but not enough to turn a mismatch into a Michigan win this time around.
Max Marcovitch: March is a month of matchups as much as talent. Michigan was a matchup nightmare for Louisville last year, and junior center Moritz Wagner exploited that mismatch, giving the Cardinals the game of his life to win that second round game. This region, and whether the Wolverines can advance to the Final Four, might just hinge on a rematch with the Tar Heels, who remain a matchup problem. To be sure, Michigan is a drastically different team than it was in November, when North Carolina clobbered the Wolverines, 86-71, in Chapel Hill. Zavier Simpson — one of, if not the, biggest reasons for Michigan's ascent into a contender recently — played just 13 minutes and had one fewer turnover (two) than he did points (three). He should figure prominently in containing point guard Joel Berry if the rematch does indeed take place. This is a Michigan team that is night and day from where it was in November, no question about it.
But still, I have trouble entirely discarding that blowout.
Teams that will give Michigan problems in the tournament will likely either be adept at defending and switching multiple positions, offer trouble with a zone, have a dominant big man or some combination of the three. No matter how improved Duncan Robinson is defensively, Luke Maye matched up on Robinson is a problem. Maye exploited Robinson for 27 points in the first matchup, and would seem destined to do so again. North Carolina is athletic enough — and well-coached enough — to contain a good, but still not great, Michigan offense.
To me, this region will come down to that game in Los Angeles next week, and I would favor the Tar Heels in a close one.