Alex: March Madness is now in full swing, with the first two rounds taking place this past weekend, featuring shockingly few upsets. Hopefully that means good basketball this weekend. And even better, the Michigan Wolverines are still standing after a couple of confident wins in Iowa. Up next: the Texas Tech Red Raiders. But first, did anything stand out to you from the first weekend of tourney play?
Evan: At the national level, it was incredible how boring and chalky the first two rounds were. Every 1, 2, and 3 seed made the Sweet 16 for the second time ever (2009) and 92.5% of brackets on the ESPN Tournament Challenge still have their national champion. There isn’t much to breakdown from last weekend, but there are a lot of fun matchups coming up.
From a Michigan perspective, they weren’t truly challenged in either game. Montana was as bad as expected, and Florida just didn’t have the offense to compete with Michigan. It appears Tournament Charles Matthews is once again a thing, and Eli Brooks appears to be serviceable for the time being. But there is one major concern from the Florida game: from 17:49 to 10:30 Michigan scored 3 points and had 0 field goals. A 15 point lead was cut to 6. Does that sound familiar? It should:
- at Iowa: 6 points in the first 6:41 of the second half, 4 points from 9:38 to 4:37
- MSU part 1 (home): 4 points from 15:57 to 5:36 of the second half
- MSU part 2 (away): 3 points from 12:24 to 5:01 of the second half
- MSU part 3 (neutral, BTT Championship): 7 points 15:42 to 6:07 of the second half
This team has a serious middle of the second half scoring drought problem. And every remaining team in the tournament will capitalize on the opportunity if Michigan presents it. In short: Montana sucks and Florida is bad, but Michigan played excellent defense in both games. If they want to survive another weekend, they have to avoid a big scoring drought in the second half.
Alex: Michigan is playing some of their best defense of the season and the effort against Florida was just smothering, holding the Gators to a season-low point total. I will agree about Charles Matthews, who was huge against Montana and very solid against Florida. They will need that to continue from him moving forward, as he is one of those potential options to break the scoring droughts that you mentioned. Jon Teske also had a flat-out phenomenal game on Saturday versus Florida. He was an anchor in the paint and one of the big reasons that the Wolverines were so dominant in the second half. Lastly, we should give Zavier Simpson a shoutout for his performance as well, as he made the numbers “9-9-9” relevant for the first time since Herman Cain.
One thought regarding the scoring issues: this is pretty much a function of this team. They are offensively challenged in certain ways and even though I believe it to be coincidental when the scoring drought is occurring, it is happening at least once a game. They don’t have the one man solution like they did last year with Moe Wagner or Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman. The offense has to be able to flow and not fall into hero-ball like they did against Michigan State in Chicago. Which is why Tournament Charles Matthews’ ability to get to the basket is so big.
Evan: The one thing I’ll say about coincidence vs not is that the 4 games I listed above were all losses (4 of the 6 losses Michigan has suffered this season). So while it might be a coincidence of when they occur on a game to game basis, having them come at bad times (like in the second half when the team is trying to get back into the game or trying to hold onto a big lead) is a killer. But this defense has proven it can handle it most of the time as you mentioned.
Ready to talk Texas Tech?
Alex: Yes. They’re very similar to Michigan in that they feature a tremendous defense and a good but not great offense. However, they are different in that they rely on a go-to player, NBA prospect Jarrett Culver, who has 31% usage. No Michigan player has more than 24%. The Red Raiders are also small.
Evan: Culver is an excellent player. He’s been a consensus lottery pick for most of the season, and thanks to a weak draft class outside the top 3, he’s going to have a good shot at being a top 5 pick this summer. BUT, he has to deal with Charles Matthews. Matthews might be the most underrated defender in the country because his ability to shut down wings was wasted in the Big Ten which features mostly elite guards and bigs. But this is Matthews’ chance to show what he can do against NBA talent at both ends. When you look up and down the matchup list, this appears to be the one that should sway the game one way or another, unless you believe that Matt Mooney has any chance at putting together a good game against Zavier Simpson. Which isn't too likely given Simpson's track record of defending guards in the NCAA Tournament.
Alex: Texas Tech is a good matchup for Michigan in the sense that Michigan’s two most consistently dominant defenders are logical matches for the Red Raiders' weapons. And certainly if Simpson and Matthews can do well against Culver and Mooney, TT is in big time trouble because those guys are the only two players who dictate the offense for the Red Raiders. Culver has 31.5% usage and Mooney has 22.5% usage. No one else is higher than 19%. For reference, Jon Teske’s offense is 17% usage and he’s not exactly an offensive wizard. Guys like Tariq Owens and Davide Moretti, who post great offensive efficiency numbers, are allowed to do so because Culver and Mooney dictate play and eat up the bad possessions. Stop Culver and Mooney and you stop the point of attack. That said, a more meaningful question may be whether Michigan can crack the Texas Tech defense.
Evan: Yep. As you mentioned, Texas Tech isn’t all that big. Their starting lineup:
- Mooney 6’3”
- Moretti 6’2”
- Culver 6’5”
- Francis 6’5”
- Owens 6’10”
Alex: In some ways this feels like a race to 60. A consistent advantage that Michigan should have is on the glass and at the free throw line. Unlike Michigan, who never fouls on defense, Texas Tech is quite a bit below average in terms of giving up free throws and due to their height problem, they are middling or below average in both offensive and defensive rebounding. Given that the Red Raiders are the 2nd best team in eFG% defense, getting multiple opportunities in a given possession would be huge. And the foul-prone defense is where Jordan Poole comes in, as he is Michigan’s most consistent threat in terms of drawing fouls. Another key point is turnovers: Michigan 3rd best in not turning it over nationally, while Texas Tech is 10th best nationally at forcing turnovers. If the Wolverines protect the ball and grab a solid amount of rebounds, they should be able to scratch out a win.
Should we talk briefly about Gonzaga and FSU?
Evan: Sure. I know you have a lot of thoughts about Gonzaga, so I’ll leave them to you. Leonard Hamilton’s Seminoles team is deep, long, and athletic. They’ve played as well as anyone in the country over the last two months (their only losses since January 20th were @ North Carolina and in the ACC Tournament against Duke) and even without starting guard Phil Cofer (his father passed away and he has not been with the team since), they breezed through the opening weekend. The question for this team is can they keep the game close against a Gonzaga team that all advanced stats seem to love? FSU is 11-4 in single digit games so they’re battle tested, and as I said they have a lot of depth. But if they come out cold and don’t make their jump shots early, and Gonzaga is able to keep them out of transition by controlling the pace and breaking down their defense, this game could turn into a blowout.
Alex: Gonzaga fascinates me because we don’t know a lot about them. They are 32-3 but by virtue of being a WCC team, they played 7 games against tourney teams and three of those games were against St. Mary’s. In those 7 games, they were 4-3 and the average result was Gonzaga +5.3 (yes, that includes a 48(!!!) point win over St. Mary’s). While they are the only team to defeat Zion this year, they also have double digit losses to St. Mary’s and UNC and an uninspiring 2 point win over Washington at home on the resume. In terms of advanced metrics, they grade out as on pace to be one of the best teams of the last 15 years. Their +33.06 adjusted efficiency margin is the fourth highest of the last 8 seasons and the other three teams (Kentucky 2015, Wisconsin 2015, and Villanova 2018) made the Final Four. KenPom and Torvik love the Zags. They have the nation’s #1 offense, some legit dudes in Brandon Clarke, Rui Hachimura, and Zach Norvell, and the luxury of bringing Killian Tillie of the bench. Which Gonzaga team is the real team? That’s what we’re going to find out this weekend in Anaheim.
Should we do predictions?
Evan: I hate this part. Especially when you have one game between two teams that are basically dead even (Kenpom projects Michigan to beat Texas Tech 62-61) and two teams that are total wildcards in the other game. I’ll trust my gut with both:
FSU 78 - Gonzaga 71. A close game the whole way ending in a typical tourney choke for Gonzaga. MVP: Terance Mann continues his hot streak.
Michigan 66 - Texas Tech 58. As long as Michigan’s defense can survive the inevitable scoring drought, they truly are the better team. This is going to be the Jordan Poole game.
Alex: Hey we did pretty well in predicting football season! My picks:
Gonzaga 84 - FSU 77. I think the Zags are really good and Leonard Hamilton is not a good coach.
Michigan 62 - Texas Tech 57: The race to 60 will be (barely) won by the Wolverines. I think the Red Raiders’ offense will stumble in the face of Simpson and Matthews and Michigan will do just barely enough to scrape out a tough win. Tournament Charles Matthews will be great again.
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