1. Let’s start with Michigan and their wild weekend. The Montana game went much the way I expected, though I didn’t think it would be THAT ugly. But great defense is a big asset and the Grizzlies never had much of a chance with the way the Wolverines defended, no matter how well Montana defended or how cold Michigan was from the field. Overall, it was a good win even though it looked rough.
2. On the other hand, the Houston game was a bit different than I expected. What I thought would happen that did happen: Zavier Simpson shutdown Rob Gray. Gray is maybe the best individual scorer Michigan will see the rest of this tournament, a true alpha dog. And while Gray got 23 points, he did it on an ugly 8-22 shooting, and in my memory, the vast majority of those were when Simpson was not guarding him/was on the bench. It showed too, as by the second half, the Cougars were having a different player bring the ball up and running sets to try and force Simpson to switch off onto a player other than Gray. That’s how big of an impact defender Simpson has become. As for other things, Michigan’s defense as a whole held up well. What I did not expect was another ugly offensive performance. An inability to shoot the timely shot nearly doomed the Wolverines’ season.
3. But then Jordan Poole happened. After Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman’s brutal missed layup, it was hard to believe that the season was going to end in that fashion. Houston sent Devin Davis to the line, a 66.7% free throw shooter who was 9-10 at that point. Michigan had to pray for mean reversion, and it happened. After two misses and a timeout, Michigan had some life left. Even with a glimmer of hope, I was still pretty much resigned to what I thought was the end. It was a great season and it had come up short. But then I saw Houston wasn’t guarding the inbounder, Isaiah Livers. Sure enough they ran the same play as against Maryland, one I got to see up close. But unlike Maryland, Houston did guard it well, clogging center court and forcing Rahkman to pass it to Poole and then guarded him perfectly, 30 feet out with a hand in his face. And he still swished it. Maybe the best buzzer beater I’ve ever seen. Even with a sore throat from a cold, I screamed my lungs out. And every Michigan fan should’ve too.
4. Give credit to Houston though. That is one heck of a team, and Kelvin Sampson has rebuilt a long depleted ‘80s powerhouse, giving them their first tourney win since then and they were a miracle away from a Sweet 16. I think they’ll be back to this stage again in the near future. They are also, according to KenPom’s efficiency numbers, a top 20 team, more like a 4 seed masquerading as a 6, with a go-to scorer. Wins are not easy to come by against those types of teams. Survive and advance.
Other thoughts from the West Region
5. North Carolina had the one thing that couldn’t happen happen: a cold shooting day. The Tar Heels were in search of a third straight Final Four, which is really tough to do, and I thought they’d trip up at some point. Just not against Texas A&M. UNC entered the contest with the #34 defense and had been buoyed by their ability to score, sporting the #4 offense. But then the shooting went dry. Sure, the Aggies played good D, but there were a lot of open looks for Carolina. And shot after shot after shot wouldn’t fall. Brutal offense makes it so the dream of a repeat title ends and clears Michigan’s path.
6. People who were bearish on Xavier were correct in doing so. The Musketeers ran into a talented but not that great Florida State team and hit a wall. After commanding most of the game, it slipped away. Suddenly, the Wolverines find themselves as the top seeded team left in the region.
The Wipeout in the South Region
7. Kentucky fans who spent a long time complaining about a brutal region suddenly have nothing to complain about now. A huge upset of Virginia (see below) meant that Kentucky’s path was a lot clearer, especially with Arizona losing to Buffalo. What looked to be the toughest section of the bracket is suddenly wide open. And even though Coach Cal’s Wildcats had a shaky weekend (they almost lost to Davidson), you have to think they’re the favorites going forward to come out of the South. But this region is just a mess and anything can happen.
8. The UMBC Retrievers. The greatest upset in college basketball history amazingly wasn’t even close. The perfect storm of Virginia kryptonite hit: good opposing three point shooting and a big deficit. The Cavaliers are college basketball’s least equipped top team to comeback from a big deficit and the game slipped away from UVA in a hurry. Another frustrating loss for Virginia, but you have to tip your caps to UMBC. The school that no one had ever heard of is this year’s Florida Gulf Coast. They were scrappy, had a killer Twitter account, hit huge shots, and somehow blew out college basketball’s consensus #1 team. Also, give a shoutout to WCBN Sports’ Lucas Vargas who gave reasons why all 68 teams could win the NCAA Tournament, and while the UMBC Retrievers won’t be winning it all, he wrote a section to remember there.
Thoughts out East
9. Unfortunately, things appear to be a cakewalk to San Antonio for Villanova. The Wildcats look like the sport’s best team to me, and they cruised through the opening weekend. Facing West Virginia and the winner of Texas Tech/Purdue, the road will be tougher but it’s hard to see Nova losing in the East Region right now. Yes, this is the sport of upsets, but in the present, I’m feeling mighty comfortable with my Villanova national championship pick.
10. Poor Purdue. Maybe the Boilermakers will rebound from the tragic injury of Isaac Haas, but it’s hard to see how. Already dealt a tough hand being in Villanova’s region, the loss of Haas for what appears to be the season is just devastating. Matt Haarms will probably be a Haas clone in a few years, but not right now. He’s the same height, but he is not even close to developed enough in the post to create the same offensive nightmare that Purdue was with Haas. The shooters for Purdue are still dangerous and I think they can probably make the Elite 8 without him, but boy, it just looks like an unfortunate injury might rob them of their chance at a national title.
11. Kansas has quickly become the Nobody Believes In Us team. With Duke looking strong and Michigan State’s upset (see below), I’ve (wrongly) seen some pundits now penciling the Blue Devils in the Final Four. Is Duke the favorite here? I’d say so. But don’t write off Kansas. As a Bill Self critic, I rarely find myself making the case for the Jayhawks in March, but they’ve still got a shot here. After all, Duke was only 5-5 in Q1 games entering the tourney, showing an inconsistency to beat elite teams, and Kansas finally has Udoka Azubuike back from injury, along with an already existing alpha dog in Devonte’ Graham, making them an elite squad. Oh, and the game taking place in Omaha, Nebraska, with 3 other ACC teams as the remaining foes in the region, will make it basically a home game for Kansas. Don’t count out the Jayhawks.
12. Michigan State’s titanic upset at the hands of Syracuse was a shocker. I was a bit surprised at how many talking heads were taking Michigan State to win it all given their barren resume on the season, but I at least thought they’d make it out of the opening venue, especially with the game taking place in Detroit. And Syracuse cannot score at all. And they didn’t score much at all in the game. Or really do anything offensively. The Orange barely had a pulse on offense and somehow it was still more life than Michigan State, who was a ghastly 17/66 from the field and 8/37 from three. It’s almost unfathomable how bad the Spartans were shooting the ball. Some of it was Syracuse’s notorious 2-3 zone but some was just an inability to score or make plays. Thus it means the end of one of the most frustrating MSU seasons in recent memory. Yes, 2014 was rough, but this is worse. Two NBA lottery picks, a point guard shooting .514 from three, lots of depth with the bigs, and yet a third straight opening weekend exit. Why did Jaren Jackson Jr. only play 15 minutes in an NCAA Tournament game? Why did Ben Carter play 23 minutes in an NCAA Tournament game? The use of the rotation and minute allocation was baffling all season long, and it just feels like one of the greatest cases of talent underachieving in recent memory.
13. Michigan is the highest seeded, and in my opinion, the best team left on the left side of the bracket. Now, that doesn’t really mean anything moving forward, as upsets can and will happen, especially with legitimate talent in both the South and West regions. That said, I like Michigan’s chances. Texas A&M is a much better matchup for the Wolverines than North Carolina and Gonzaga hasn’t really scared me. While the Zags sport a handsome KenPom rating, they played a very weak regular season schedule and then should’ve gotten upset by UNC Greensboro before nearly choking away a big lead over Ohio State. This West Region should be Michigan’s for the taking.
14. But, the Wolverines have to play better. Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman needs to show up and perform after two uncharacteristically bad showings in Wichita this past weekend. Same goes for Moe Wagner, who is on paper, Michigan’s best player. They also may be playing their final games at Michigan here in March, MAAR for sure and it remains to be seen if Wagner will leave for the NBA or not. If they want to be remembered as Michigan heroes who hauled the team to a Final Four or beyond, they need to ball out this weekend in Los Angeles. And as a whole, the offensive rhythm and flow needs to be better. There were too many empty possessions of stagnant offense this past weekend. Michigan’s elite defense will keep them in games this weekend. An offense like we saw in NYC in the B1G Tournament would punch their ticket to San Antonio.
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