Michigan Reaching Championship Potential as Wolverines Discover Their Offense

The Michigan Wolverines fell one point shy of the century mark, but they kept it 100 for 40 minutes in a 99-72 shellacking of Texas A&M in Thursday night’s Sweet 16 showdown.

It’s hard to believe this was the same Michigan team that couldn’t buy a bucket last weekend, but this version of the Wolverines is the one that can win a national championship.

Michigan’s offense was nowhere to be found in the first two rounds of the 2018 men’s NCAA tournament. The Wolverines scored just 61 points against Montana before scraping out 64 in a one-point win against Houstonthanks in large part to Jordan Poole’s buzzer-beating three-pointer.

They entered the tournament on a nine-game winning streak with at least 72 points scored in each contest, but they shot a woeful 13-of-46 (28.3 percent) from three-point range in those first two games.

If the team we saw in Wichita had showed up in Los Angeles, it was going to be curtains for its tournament run. After all, Texas A&M entered the night ranked eighth in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom.com. The Aggies also ranked eighth in block percentage, 17th in two-point field-goal defense and 19th in three-point field-goal defense. And the last time we saw the Aggies, they were holding North Carolina to just 65 points in a 78-possession game.

For a team struggling to find its way on offense, Texas A&M seemed to be just about the worst opponent imaginable.

Yet, the Wolverines scored at will against a roster that was rumored to be athletically superior to them, as noted by The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie:

Seven different Michigan players made a three-pointer within the first 12 minutes of a beatdown that began shortly after the opening tip. By the time walk-on C.J. Baird drained a triple in the closing seconds, the Wolverines were 14-of-24 (58.3 percent) as a team.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman led the way with 24 points and seven assists. “MAAR” was the epitome of Michigan’s offensive woes last weekend, scoring just 23 points on 26 field-goal attempts, including missing all but one of his 12 three-point attempts.

Joining Abdur-Rahkman on the struggle bus in Wichita was Moritz Wagner. The big man put the team on his back in the Big Ten tournament, but foul trouble and aggressive opposing defense kept him from doing much of anything against Montana and Houston. He found his way against Texas A&M, though, draining all three of his three-point attempts en route to 21 points.

With both of those stars showing up in a big way, the offense was flowing for Michigan.

But so was the defense, which is what made this team a title contender long before Thursday night.

After just 15 minutes and 15 seconds, Michigan already had eight steals and had opened up a 44-18 lead. The Wolverines eventually had the luxury of pumping the brakes a bit and going into “just don’t get injured” mode in the second half, but they still finished the game with a dozen steals.

Forcing turnovers isn’t usually their M.O., but they have been dominant on defense all season. A&M entered the night at No. 8 in adjusted defensive efficiency, but Michigan was even better at No. 3. (No. 1 among teams still in the tournament.)

This is a far cry from normal for John Beilein. In none of his previous 10 seasons at Michigannor in his five seasons at West Virginia before thathad a Beilein-coached team ranked in the top 35 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. Even when the Wolverines made it to the 2013 national championship, they were only ranked No. 37 on defense.

Typically, Beilein’s teams win games with what we’ll remember from Thursday night: unstoppable, turnover-free offense fueled by three-pointers.

Combine that with relentless defense, though, and you’ve got one heck of a formula for a championship—especially considering this is the top-seeded team remaining from the chaotic half of the bracket.

Here’s the unanswerable question that makes the Wolverines such a threat to win it all: What type of team would be the ultimate mismatch for Michigan?

In theory, that team should have been Texas A&M—a team loaded with athletic big men who can pound the paint and make the Wolverines pay for not having a dominant frontcourt. But that’s obviously not the right answer, nor was it a problem when Michigan won both of its games against Michigan State earlier this season.

Small-ball teams like Purdue and North Carolina gave Michigan the most trouble on the defensive end this season, but only because those teams were unconscious from three-point range. The Tar Heels shot 46.7 percent while Michigan shot just 29.4 percent. The Boilermakers were a combined 23-of-41 (56.1 percent) in their two wins over Michigan. But the rest of the Wolverines’ opponents shot a combined 31.3 percent from downtown, so those appear to be red-hot anomalies rather than some kind of formula for beating them.

The correct answer is: a lucky team.

These are the magic numbers you need if you want a shot at beating the Wolverines: Either hold them below 30 percent from three-point range or make at least 55 percent of your own three-point attempts. When one of those things happened this season, there was a 50 percent chance (7-7 in 14 games) that Michigan would lose. But that means in the 24 games in which one of those things didn’t happen, Michigan is undefeated.

Given how good the Wolverines looked on both ends of the floor in the Sweet 16, even Duke or Villanova would need a fair amount of luck to knock these guys out.

                   

Statistics courtesy of KenPom.com and Sports Reference.

Kerry Miller covers men’s college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.