Ethan Wolfe: Welcome to Michigan's circus
LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Welcome one, welcome all.
I’d like to introduce you to the circus show put on by the Michigan men’s basketball team during Thursday’s Sweet Sixteen matchup against Texas A&M. It’s possible that you saw the traveling ensemble in Wichita, Kan. for the first two games of the NCAA Tournament, but I want to assure you that this 99-72 victory is a much, much more scintillating experience.
Jordan Poole’s buzzer-beater to top Houston was surely an exciting ending though, right?
“We can’t do that again,” said freshman forward Isaiah Livers. “You don’t get miracles like that everyday. We gotta hit them first in the mouth and keep going from there.”
If you buy a ticket, you will find that this show actually hits the ground running this time. It has the unusual and the unexpected with a flare of the familiar, say, as if John Beilein and elite offense are friends again.
The price of admission for Michigan’s performance at Staples Center is $6 for Section 311, according to StubHub. If you want 100-level seats, I’m not your guy. But when none of your hometown teams are playing I understand why you would want to watch at home with some popcorn anyway. They have that here too, you know, if you have another $6.
This show isn’t what everyone was reading about in the papers all week. The Wolverines were well aware that the Aggies’ Robert Williams and Tyler Davis were gigantic showmen themselves, but they are only given minor roles in this performance (Yes, spoiler, Williams flies to swat an Ibi Watson layup. And a Charles Matthew layup. Maybe a few dunks, here and there. It’s not kid-friendly stuff).
As you walk in prior to the show, you’ll hear fans wearing maroon and white chant the Aggie War Hymn. After that, you will never hear it again.
The circus begins.
It starts with a classic circus staple — fire. You’ll see it throughout the performance — Michigan shoots 61.9 percent from the field — but not as much as at the commencement. In fact, the performers might have more fun than you. Seven of the Wolverines’ will be riding the 3-pointer carousel, hitting from beyond the arc one-by-one before repeating — a truly remarkable feat.
“This is definitely who we are,” said senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. “We knew that we didn’t play that well in Wichita, that left a bad taste in our mouth. We just got a second chance and we came to LA to prove the team that we actually are.”
While the carousel spins, the fans will see some slight-of-hand tricks from Zavier Simpson. The sophomore point guard can give pause to any ball-handler, and Thursday’s victim, T.J. Starks, displays Simpson swiping it from his hands in each of his five turnovers. You can try wiping your glasses, but he’s just that quick.
Treys and turnovers are specialties for Michigan, but in this show, even the previously unseen happens. Abdur-Rahkman will drain a three as part of his 24 points, and he cracks a smile and pirouettes back into defense.
Fifth-year senior Duncan Robinson will prove that he can, indeed, jump as he slams it home after a Simpson steal to get the Wolverines’ biggest lead of 29.
After intermission, the show does not stop. Redshirt sophomore guard Charles Matthews will dance around the paint freely, hitting elbow jumpers and driving to the hoop from both sides. A few pump fakes sends the Aggies’ Davis soaring high in the air.
When Texas A&M puts on a full-court press at the end of the lopsided tilt, it’s hard to blame the Wolverines for some sloppy turnovers. After putting on a near-perfect exhibit, who wouldn’t get nervous about ending with a bang?
And a wacky bang they will find.
“From a mental side of things, it’s hard to be in the moment when you’re up 24,” said assistant coach Luke Yaklich. “… It is a little bit of disbelief. But you’re so happy for those kids.”
A gliding Jaaron Simmons lobs a rainbow to a reaching Austin Davis for the alley-oop. Moritz Wagner, tongue out, nearly runs into the tunnel.
And for the final possession, even walk-on freshman C.J. Baird gets his opportunity in the limelight for the first time since Dec. 21. With the shot clock dwindling and space in front of him, Baird will sink his first career 3-pointer. Everyone gets in on the fun.
“It’s the best feeling of my life,” Baird said. “I told Ibi Watson when I got in there I’m gonna shoot it and he said ‘Okay, do it then.’ I was kinda nervous when (Simmons) called me because I’m like ‘Oh, they actually want me to do this.’ I didn’t think they’d actually let me do it. ”
It’s a picture-perfect ending to an already picture-perfect game, even if the tricks weren’t expected. And if by chance you don’t get to see the circus live, please don’t worry.
It’ll be back on Saturday for the Elite Eight. The tricks are to be determined.
Wolfe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ethanewolfe.