MILWAUKEE — A few hours after knocking off Wofford in their opening-round NCAA Tournament game, members of the Michigan men’s basketball team watched from their hotel as Arizona State completed its comeback to draw even with Texas with just 17 seconds left.
But when the final horn sounded, it was the Longhorns advancing to a Round of 32 meeting with the Wolverines on Saturday thanks to a layup at the buzzer from center Cameron Ridley .
For Michigan coach John Beilein, the play brought with it plenty of emotions — not many of them positive.
First, there was the flashback to his last meeting with Texas, when he was still coaching at West Virginia, which ended quite similarly to the Sun Devils’ loss. It was a Sweet 16 game, and Beilein’s star, Kevin Pittsnoggle, had just drilled a game-tying 3-pointer to even the game with just five ticks left.
“We were all elated, and then, five seconds later, the ball was in the basket and a great career for a lot of West Virginia seniors was over,” Beilein said Friday. “I think about it a little bit, but I’m over it.”
What he’s not over, though, is the Longhorn who was on the right side of Thursday’s heroics, the 6-foot-9, 285-pound Ridley, along with his running mate, 6-foot-8, 240-pound forward Jonathon Holmes. Together, the two form one of the biggest frontcourts Michigan will have faced all season.
“The size of the ‘4’ and ‘5’ men and their ability, not just size, but their ability to rebound in traffic — it’s going to be very difficult,” Beilein said. “I really think that we can do it. We can rebound with them if the ball bounces our way a little bit.”
Ridley, who scored 17 points and grabbed 12 boards Thursday, averages 11.4 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game. Holmes leads the team with 12.9 points per game, while chipping in with 7.1 boards as well. Together, the pair helped Texas pull down 41.8 rebounds per game, No. 4 in the nation.
Only Florida State — with a 7-foot-3 starting center and 7-foot-1 center off the bench — has presented the Wolverines with a larger front line this season. Michigan managed to knock off the Seminoles in Puerto Rico while out-rebounding them, 39-34.
Michigan assistant coach Bacari Alexander, whose main duty is coaching the bigs, said that he’ll show his forwards individual clips of the success each of them had against Florida State’s imposing big men “to give them confidence.”
Redshirt junior Jon Horford said the comparison between the Longhorns and Seminoles is fair, though it’ll help that no one on Texas is as big as the 7-foot-1, 290-pound Michael Ojo, who is “probably the biggest human being on earth, now that I think about it.”
“We just tried to keep them off the glass, even if we had to stare at them in the face and just hold them and let the guards get all the rebounds,” Horford said, adding that the game plan for Saturday will implement many of the same tactics. “Ideally, we don’t want (Texas’s forwards) to get any touches, but obviously that’s not going to happen.”
When asked if he could compare Texas’ high-low offensive sets to any opponents he has faced this year, Horford’s only comparison was Michigan State, but “with this kind of size and the way that they do it, not necessarily.”
“I’ve seen a lot of clips of (Ridley) just catching it, taking one dribble and trying to dunk on people,” Horford said. “It’s something that (fifth-year senior Jordan) Morgan and myself … will have to trust our guards on the backside. If we front and they throw it over the backside, they’re so athletic and quick that they can come steal those balls every time if they want.”
Sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III will be tasked with guarding Holmes — a two-inch, 20-pound differential. In games like this, Robinson admitted, sometimes the extra energy it takes to play defense and rebound come at the expense of offense.
“Hopefully it doesn’t, but at times, that can be a factor,” Robinson said.
But on the other hand, Robinson’s smaller stature may pay off offensively by Michigan’s ability to stretch out the Longhorns’ defense and utilize its speed.
“It’s what’s worked for us for a long time, being able to stretch people out,” Beilein said. “We won 26 games, and many times, we’ve still been out-rebounded.”
Still, though, the Wolverines’ ability to score will likely rest where it always does: in the backcourt, especially with sophomore guard Nik Stauskas.
Stauskas, the Big Ten Player of the Year, had a mediocre game by his standards Thursday, scoring 15 points on 5-of-9 shooting while missing a few shots he typically makes. But, where Michigan will have trouble matching up with Texas inside, Stauskas and sophomore guard Caris LeVert should be able to shoot over the smaller Longhorn backcourt.
Stauskas and the rest of his teammates watched from their locker room early Friday afternoon as No. 14 seed Mercer upset No. 3 seed Duke. The Blue Devils had been projected to meet Michigan in the Sweet 16 next week, and the result makes the Wolverines’ path to the Final Four a bit less rigorous. But for now, Michigan had bigger worries on its mind than future opponents.
“Looking forward, it could potentially change matchups if we were to move on after tomorrow, but right now our main focus is Texas,” Stauskas said. “They are no joke.”