INDIANAPOLIS — March is made for comebacks.
The NCAA Tournament, rife with upsets and stunning come-from-behind wins, played a familiar tune in the Michigan men’s basketball game on Thursday.
In the first game of the Round of 64, the 11th-seeded Wolverines (18-14 overall) beat No. 6 seed Colorado State (25-4), 75-63, advancing Michigan to the Round of 32 in dramatic fashion.
“It was luck, man, just luck,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said jokingly. “The basketball Gods, man, they helped me out.”
While obviously not luck, the Wolverines put themself in a situation early on that required some type of intervention.
From the start, it was evident that Michigan’s long-term problems would not be miraculously erased by the magic of the NCAA Tournament. Constant defensive lapses allowed the Rams to take shots of their choosing, leading to a flurry of three-point attempts. Colorado State opened 4-of-5 from beyond the arc, taking a total of 20 in the half, just two shy of its average of 22 per game.
On the offensive side, the absence of graduate guard DeVante’ Jones — out with a concussion sustained in practice earlier this week — appeared to stagnate the Wolverines’ attack. Michigan scored all 29 of its first half points down low or at the free throw line, not making a jump shot for the entire half, and it commited a whopping nine turnovers.
“Nine turnovers in the first half, that’s not winning basketball,” Howard said. “Nine turnovers, you are gifting them nine extra possessions.”
With six minutes to go in the half, though, freshman guard Frankie Collins re-entered the game, providing the Wolverines with a quick spark that left them down just seven at the half, trimming what had been a 15 point deficit.
Though just a spark at first, that burst ignited a full-on flame.
“I know I was thinking, shoot, if (Indiana) can do it to us, we can do it to (Colorado State),” sophomore center Hunter Dickinson said.
Out of the break, Michigan refused to let its season be extinguished. The Wolverines found their groove offensively, churning out a highly efficient half that led to them outscoring the Rams by 19 points in the second half.
Michigan relied on its overwhelming size matchup down low, which created open opportunities on the perimeter that it actually capitalized on.
“Look how we shot the ball in the second half; we shot 41% in the first half, but finished with 54% throughout the game,” Howard said. “We did not make a 3-pointer in the first half. We were 0-for-7, and then Caleb (Houstan), he got hot at the right time.”
Additionally, the Wolverines cut down on their turnovers, committing just six in the final 20 minutes, limiting the amount of empty trips down the floor.
Defensively, they got their hands in passing lanes, stymied their men and snuffed out almost any opportunity in the paint, holding Colorado State below 30% on both shots form deep and from the field as a whole.
As part of that turnaround, they held the Rams’ best player, forward David Roddy, to just 13 points on 5-for-11 shooting on the game.
“In the first half we were giving a lot of easy looks,” Dickinson said. “Any good team in Division I basketball can hit wide open looks like that, so we really tried to lock in and buy into … just playing Michigan defense out there.”
Michigan looked like a completely new team in the second half. It was as if the up-and-down issues the Wolverines have had all season from game to game were showcased all together in a single outing.
Despite looking like it might fall short, with its season on the line, Michigan found a way to get it done. The Wolverines conquered their early-game struggles, without their starting point guard, against a formidable opponent that had all the tools to bury Michigan’s season.
And the Wolverines will live to dance another day.