LOS ANGELES, Calif. — All of John Beilein’s Sweet Sixteen appearances had been more drama-filled than a Hollywood soap opera. In 2013, Trey Burke’s game-tying three against Kansas — possibly the most-glorified shot in program history — gave the Michigan men’s basketball coach his first second-weekend win in unbelievable, come-from-behind fashion. Last year, the Wolverines came within inches of the Elite Eight, as Derrick Walton’s buzzer-beating triple attempt fell just short in Kansas City.
But on Thursday, such nail-biting, angst-filled moments weren’t necessary. The fourth-seeded Wolverines (31-7 overall) dominated from start to finish, cruising to a 99-72 drubbing of No. 7 seed Texas A&M (22-12) at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Michigan has now earned its 14th Elite Eight appearance in program history — or 12th if you’re on board with the NCAA pretending that 1992 and 1993 never happened.
Oddly, the game may be best summarized by its first basket. Aggies point guard T.J. Starks glared inside toward forward Tyler Davis — a third of Texas A&M’s mammoth frontcourt that figured to carry a sizable advantage over Michigan’s. But the pass was errant, forcing Davis to wildly save it into the arms of sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson. From there, senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and junior forward Mortiz Wagner played a two-man in transition, eventually leading to one of many easy buckets for the German center.
It was the first of 14 turnovers for Texas A&M, one of seven team-leading assists for Abdur-Rahkman and two of 21 points for Wagner. Abdur-Rahkman also led the Wolverines with 24 points — one of four Michigan players to reach double-figures.
That Wolverine offense that dripped with frustration, missed shots and disharmony? It stayed in Wichita. Michigan shot 62 percent from the floor and drained 14 three-pointers from eight different players — a Tournament record — to score its second-highest total of the season.
“When we got back Monday watching the film, we knew we were so much better than what we played,” said fifth-year senior Duncan Robinson. “And that’s encouraging when you go 2-0 and beat two really good teams in a weekend and don’t play your best. Today, might have been close to our best, quite honestly.”
The Wolverines came out of the gates raining it in like the California sky on Thursday, making four of their first five to grab an early lead. After the first media timeout, the Aggies shifted to a 2-3 zone defense — a look that Michigan has struggled against all season. It didn’t make a difference.
At the 12:14 mark, sophomore guard Ibi Watson — who had made just nine 3-pointers all year — flicked his wrist from the left corner. It hit pure nylon. A minute later, Robinson launched a triple that bounced off the rim twice before finding a home through the hoop. Then Simpson nailed one. So did Wagner. As did redshirt sophomore Charles Matthews. It seemed so easy that the Wolverines felt like they were being slighted.
“We’re so used to being heavily contested and not being able to get into our offense,” said freshman guard Jordan Poole. “Being able to get the open looks that we had today was kind of like a shocker to us.
“We felt a little disrespected.”
The Wolverines drained seven 3-pointers to gain a lopsided, 21-point lead before the eight-minute mark. They looked like a juggernaut. Texas A&M looked like anything but.
Failing to find any semblance of rhythm, the Aggies turned it over 10 times in the first half. A bad pass here, a missed shot there. Offensive ineptitude everywhere. The team that exploded for 86 points against North Carolina last weekend — the defending national champion Tar Heels that torched the Wolverines in November — was a shell of itself.
There was a regression towards the mean in the second frame. The Aggies pounded the ball inside to regain a functioning offense. Michigan, naturally, didn’t spit the same fire it did in the first.
But it didn’t matter. Like a flawed movie script, there was little conflict involved; the game was over long before the final buzzer sounded. And for the Wolverines, the victory is further proof that they belong, now sitting only one win away from the Final Four.
“It shows for us, and for the people watching, that we didn’t get lucky,” said freshman forward Isaiah Livers. “We didn’t just hit a lucky shot. I believe in destiny, so we’re destined to be here.”