Michigan’s starting guards are 6-foot-2, 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-6. Tennessee’s are 6-foot-1, 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-6.
But the similarities in size get quickly obscured by the differences in style.
The Michigan men’s basketball team works its offense around the perimeter — playing off of ball screens and finding drive-and-kick opportunities. The Wolverines rotate the ball quickly and look to exploit cracks in the defense with prolific 3-point shooting.
The 11th-seeded Volunteers, meanwhile, work the ball from the inside out. The guards — Antonio Barton, Jordan McRae and Josh Richardson — don’t generate the offense like Michigan’s guards do.
Six-foot-eight, 260-pound wunderkind Jarnell Stokes gets a lot of touches and passes out of double teams when opponents give him attention in the post. The junior forward is averaging 20 points and 15 rebounds in the NCAA Tournament, but has just as many assists on the season as Barton, the starting point guard.
Another 6-foot-8 load, Jeronne Maymon starts alongside Stokes, and while he lacks the scoring presence, he knows how to catch the ball, keep it high and play back out over the top of the defense.
“This is a team that is a difficult match for us because they have great quickness on the perimeter,” said Michigan coach John Beilein on ESPN’s Mike and Mike radio show. “And they play with a classic two big guys on the blocks that just beat us up.”
Unlike No. 2 seed Michigan, however, Tennesssee doesn’t win with knockdown 3-point shooting. The Wolverines make 40 percent of their attempts while Tennessee shoots 33 percent. Four Michigan regulars shoot better than 40 percent behind the arc, while Tennessee’s most accurate gunner, McRae, makes 36 percent.
The Wolverines shoot five more 3-pointers per game, and the expected advantage for Michigan after considering both the accuracy and quantity of 3-point shooting is nearly 10 points.
It’s no secret to the Volunteers who they need to key in on, specifically. Sophomore guard Nik Stauskas, who on Wednesday was named a first-team All-American, has Tennessee’s attention.
“He shoots threes, he can drive to the hole, he can do pretty much everything,” Richardson told reporters Tuesday. “It will be a tough cover again. Their offense pretty much flows through him, and he leads in points and assists, so it will be crucial to get him out of his rhythm.”
But just in case that sounds like Richardson is worried about the matchup…
“It’s just another player,” he said. “I have been guarding guys like that for a while now. It’s nothing new.”
Richardson is the team’s second-leading scorer behind McRae, and he led Tennessee with 26 points on 9-for-13 shooting in Sunday’s 83-63 pummeling of Mercer.
Though he won’t command a lot of attention behind the 3-point line, his shooting has improved in the last few weeks. Similar to a handful of Texas players last week, Richardson is most effective putting up floaters and mid-range jumpers.
According to Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin, Richardson went through some of the same self-efficacy doubts as sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III.
“I know as a player, sometimes coach wanted me to shoot the ball, and I wasn’t as assertive early in my career to shoot the ball,” Martin said, analogizing himself to Richardson. “But it is how he is feeling, and if his shots are going, he is aggressive, he is going to be extremely tough to defend.”
McRae, however, is Tennessee’s major scoring threat. In many ways, he resembles the man he’ll most likely guard — sophomore guard Caris LeVert. Both players are listed at 6-foot-6 and 185 pounds, and both have long, lanky limbs that help them deflect balls in the passing lanes, jump stop into the paint and finish with either hand on either side of the rim — over and around the outstretched arms of post defenders.
The Tennessee senior averages 18.6 points per game, but even if he, along with the rest of the Volunteers are on top of their games Friday night, Martin knows that still may not be enough.
“The (Wolverines) shoot it very well,” Martin said. “We have to contest that line. But the thing about it is … they run their plays, and it’s almost like you would like for them to score out of their set plays because when the set plays break down, they have four guys that can take you off the dribble and make plays and make shots.
“The margin for error is very slim.”