The Daily predicts Michigan's NCAA Tournament fate

Tuesday, March 19, 2019 - 9:42pm

The Michigan men's basketball team will open the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night against Montana.

The Michigan men's basketball team will open the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night against Montana. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

Michigan is back in the NCAA Tournament. Now what?

The Wolverines’ selection to the tournament, which they will open by playing No. 15 seed Montana on Thursday night in Des Moines, Iowa, seemed to be met with a collective ennui. After all, this was a team that, just an hour earlier, suffered a heartbreaking loss to Michigan State, this time in the Big Ten Tournament championship game, and went just 6-4 over its final 10 games — three of the losses coming to the Spartans. In opposition to previous seasons in which Michigan hit its stride in March, this team almost limped to the finish.

Still, the Wolverines didn’t start a program-record 17-0, win 28 games and earn a No. 2 seed for nothing. Despite an inconsistent offense, they have the second-best defense in the country, per KenPom — a stingy unit that should allow them to compete with anyone in the bracket. In what appears to be a manageable West Regional, Michigan, should it put its recent struggles behind it, will fancy its chances of dancing deep into March and possibly April.

But will it actually do so? The Daily men’s basketball beat writers offer their predictions of Michigan’s postseason fate:

Aria Gerson: John Beilein has a reputation as a coach capable of March magic. With a team that won more games and earned a higher seed — No. 2 — than last year’s squad that made the national title game, expectations are once again high for the Wolverines.

Like last year, they should handle No. 15 seed Montana fairly easily. The Grizzlies have a lot of experience and can shoot, but lack size. That won’t serve them well against junior center Jon Teske. Ultimately, Michigan’s defense will overwhelm Montana in a low-scoring affair that may stay close in the first half.

In the second round, the Wolverines would meet either No. 7 seed Nevada or No. 10 seed Florida. The Wolfpack are not quite as good as their reputation, and while the Gators have a few impressive wins, they also lost to SEC bottom-feeder Georgia. Considering how Michigan looked against lower-tier tournament teams in the Big Ten Tournament — beating Iowa and Minnesota by a combined 48 points — it should handle either of these opponents as well.

But once the Wolverines start playing better teams, they will run into trouble with a lack of offensive options. Michigan will find its way to the Sweet 16 for the third straight year, but that’s where their season will come to an end — most likely in a low-scoring slugfest against No. 3 seed Texas Tech.

Jacob Shames: Looking at the bracket as a whole, Michigan has to be pleased with its draw. There’s no nightmare matchup in its way like a second-round run-in with Syracuse’s 2-3 zone, and Gonzaga is perceived as the weakest of the four No. 1 seeds in the bracket.

It’s hard for me to see the Wolverines failing to make it out of Des Moines. They should handle Montana in the first round, Nevada’s talented, but isolation-heavy offense plays right into their hands, and a cursory glance at Florida’s statistical profile seems to show a worse version of Michigan, essentially. In the Sweet 16, Texas Tech’s defense, per KenPom, is the lone unit in the nation better than Michigan’s. But while shooting guard Jarrett Culver is legit, the Red Raiders’ offense mostly starts and ends with him. With Charles Matthews neutralizing Culver, the Wolverines will win a rock fight and move on to play Gonzaga.

But that’s where Michigan’s road will end.

Jon Teske is just one man, Ignas Brazdeikis doesn’t quite have a power forward’s size, and the Wolverines have had trouble guarding versatile forwards like Lamar Stevens, Luka Garza and Xavier Tillman. The Bulldogs have two.

Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke are absolute monsters that can score, defend and crash the glass with anyone, and Josh Perkins, Zach Norvell and Corey Kispert can light it up from 3-point range. Don’t be fooled by the “Ain’t Played Nobody!” crowd: Gonzaga is for real. It might not have the reputation of a Duke or a North Carolina, but Michigan has yet to prove it can beat teams of the Bulldogs’ caliber.

In a game eerily reminiscent of the three games against Michigan State, Gonzaga pulls away down the stretch, the Wolverines can’t find a bucket-getter to elevate them over a superior team, and their season ends in Anaheim.

Ethan Sears: Across the board, Michigan’s draw wasn’t just considered favorable, but as good as it could have possibly been. Gonzaga is, universally, seen as the weakest 1-seed — and that seems to dictate how people are viewing this. I’m not entirely sure that’s correct.

You can chalk the first-round game against Montana up as a win. Barring some kind of disaster, the Wolverines win that on talent alone. But every matchup after that is deceptively tough. Nevada has underperformed all season. Assuming they get past Florida, though, the Wolfpack also have multiple NBA-caliber players such as Caleb Martin and Jordan Caroline. It’s a game Michigan should win. It’s also a tough 7-seed to play in the second round.

Play out the rest of the bracket from there and the matchups all feel similar. The Wolverines should beat Texas Tech in the Sweet 16. Nobody would be surprised if they didn’t.

This draw isn’t easy, but it does put Michigan’s fate into its own hands. It won’t lose any of these games because it can’t match up with any of these teams, including Gonzaga. Whether the Wolverines play up to that potential is a different question entirely, and one their collective performances against Michigan State make hard to answer.

Right now, it’s hard to see this team putting it together offensively for enough games in a row to make it back to the Final Four. The consistency just hasn’t been there, especially against higher-level competition.

Michigan’s season ends against Florida State in the Elite Eight.

Theo Mackie: On Sunday afternoon in Chicago, Michigan lost the Big Ten championship game to Michigan State — its third loss to the Spartans in three weeks. But despite the season sweep, it took mere minutes for the moods of the respective fanbases to turn.

While Michigan State was selected as the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament’s East region, the Wolverines were sent out west — the prescribed punishment for being selected as the last 2-seed. Except the West boasts the last No. 1 seed, Gonzaga, while the East is headlined by Zion Williamson and Duke.

Armed with a year of experience against Montana, its first-round opponent last year, Michigan should avoid the slow start that it had a year ago and cruise to the Round of 32. Neither of its two potential opponents there should inspire much fear. Florida ranks 61st in adjusted offensive efficiency — a death knell if you’re hoping to beat the Wolverines — while Nevada’s individualistic offensive style should be no problem for Zavier Simpson and Michigan. The bigger reason that the Wolverines should stroll to the Sweet 16, though, is that this team rarely runs into trouble against mediocre teams.

The problem is that it also rarely finds success against elite ones, at least since late December. And after a potential matchup with Texas Tech in the Sweet 16 that stacks up as a first-to-50-wins defensive battle, an elite team is exactly what Michigan will face. That may come in the form of Gonzaga, one of the country’s most talented teams, or Florida State, one of its biggest and deepest.

And unless the Wolverines solve the offensive issues that have plagued them for months, that’s going to be a problem. Ultimately, they’ll fall one game short of the Final Four.