Juwan Howard sat back in his chair and nodded in agreement before answering the question.
“We heard it all week,” Howard said matter-of-factly. “Yeah, sure did.”
When the matchup was first finalized six days ago, the Seminoles’ size quickly became a hot topic — a facet of their game that could trouble the Wolverines. While Florida State did boast elite-level length, with all of their primary rotation players over 6-foot-4, Michigan wasn’t deterred.
Propelled by a dominant performance down low, the Michigan men’s basketball team had just handled four-seed Florida State to advance to the Elite Eight. Now, in the post-game press conference, Howard was made to reflect on the pre-game chatter that contradicted the eventual outcome.
Not only did the Wolverines outscore the Seminoles to the tune of 50-28 in the paint, but they also outrebounded them by seven and had 11 on the offensive end.
“We showed it on film,” Howard said. “We also talked about it before the game, about (how) we have to attack the offensive glass. We can’t sit back on our heels and leave it untouched.”
Michigan had its way down low. Dunks, layups, hook shots — it didn’t matter, it all looked so easy. Not many teams in the country have the personnel to match up with the Wolverines’ towering freshman center Hunter Dickinson. With 7-foot-1 Balsa Koprivica and 7-foot-2 Tanor Ngom, Florida State had the personnel to do just that. Unfortunately for the Seminoles, Michigan had spent the last week focusing on how to neutralize their frontline.
“We did a really good job of preparing for it,” Howard said. “Yes, you cannot duplicate it in practice because you just don’t have that Florida State roster. … When it came to preparation, I was just so proud of how the scout team really bought into preparing us.”
All season, Dickinson has been the Wolverines’ most-consistent post player. Backup fifth-year center Austin Davis has had moments of brilliance and moments of vulnerability — especially on defense. Until recently, inconsistency also characterized the play of junior forward Brandon Johns Jr.
Sunday though, when Michigan needed it most, the trio produced its most efficient performance of the season. All three benefited from drive-and-dishes via Wolverines like graduate point guard Mike Smith and sophomore forward Franz Wagner. Once Michigan’s ball-handlers overcame the Seminoles’ perimeter pressure, Dickinson, Davis and Johns Jr. could feast on the inside.
“I think everyone knows, I think they’re the tallest team in the country, so we know they press a lot,” Wagner said. “… I think we made some good plays that really put us in good positions out there. We basically knew how they were going to play us all game with fronting the post and switching everything. So we kind of knew what to expect and did that in practice.
“Then I think we did a really good job of not allowing them to speed us up and dribble against the switch itself. That’s how we got moving and got them to move and to adjust to us. And we attacked our close-outs. That’s when they pressure so much and can attack the paint.”
Michigan didn’t just put up with Florida State’s length, it attacked it full tilt. Johns Jr. struggled at times with confidence earlier this year, but he was the most aggressive player on the floor in the first half. He set the tone for the Wolverines by drawing three fouls in the first five minutes off pick-and-rolls and putback attempts.
Even though Michigan shot just 33% from the field, thanks to Johns Jr.’s eight first-half points, the Wolverines entered the break up by double digits.
“He’s a different player,” Wagner said. “But we’ve been confident with Brandon at the four and starting at the four for us since that first game. … I mean, he’s so talented. We always tell him that he can really be the best player out there when he steps on the court.”
Against the Seminoles, Michigan showcased its versatility once again. Tall teams, short teams, fast-paced teams and deliberate teams have all succumbed to the Wolverines this season. Michigan’s ability to adapt and beat its opponents at their own game is a big reason it’s advanced to the Elite Eight.
The Wolverines’ big men might not have been mentioned much in the preceding days, but they led the way on Sunday.