Michigan Has the Look of a March Sleeper

Posted by Chris Stone on March 11th, 2017

After dispatching Illinois in their opening round game of the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan upset top-seeded Purdue on Friday behind 26 points from DJ Wilson and 54.3 percent shooting inside the arc. Now, just two days after an incredibly harrowing incident in which the Wolverines’ plane aborted takeoff, skidded off the runway and nearly ended up in a ravine, the team has the look of a potential NCAA Tournament sleeper. “We’ve been selling the fun of a run,” head coach John Beilein said after Friday’s victory. “You throw in what happened on Wednesday, now they’ve got a lot of memories. We don’t want it to stop.”

Derrick Walton Jr. and Michigan are built to win in March. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Michigan figures to make the NCAA Tournament field come Selection Sunday, likely ending up with a middling seed after amassing a 10-8 record during Big Ten regular season play. Recent history suggests that might not be such a bad thing. Under-seeded major conference teams who are well-respected by efficiency metrics like KenPom have been known to deliver. Last season, Syracuse became the first No. 10 seed to make a Final Four. In 2015, Michigan State made the final weekend as a No. 7 seed, and in 2014, No. 11 Tennessee found its way into the Sweet Sixteen after winning a play-in game. After Friday’s win, the Wolverines rank 24th in KenPom, a placement that would put them in line for a No. 6 seed if the Selection Committee seeded strictly on that ranking. Michigan may end up a couple lines lower than that.

The Wolverines are dangerous primarily because, per usual for a Beilein team, their offense is one of the best in the nation. They rank ninth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency and own the eighth best effective field goal percentage (56.5%) in college basketball. With five players who can shoot it from outside, Michigan spreads teams out and forces them to make difficult decisions in their defensive coverages. “It’s hard when they go that small for those [big] guys to be able to handle that. With [Caleb Swanigan], we just switch it,” Purdue head coach Matt Painter said. But even that didn’t work. The Wolverines know teams want to switch against them and they’re steadily adjusting. Beilein explained, “Most teams have been switching screens. That’s all we’ve been seeing. We learned better ways to counter it.” Part of that has been making sure Michigan’s big men feel comfortable shooting the ball. “Our kids are getting some volume in their shooting, in games, so they feel more comfortable,” he said.

If the Wolverines have a weakness, it’s on the defensive end of the floor where their lack of size can prove problematic. Purdue’s Isaac Haas exploited that vulnerability on Friday by consistently getting deep post position en route to scoring 17 points on 8-of-10 shooting. The issue is that most post players who can punish Michigan can also handle guarding its offense. Haas played just 15 minutes in large part because the Boilermakers couldn’t execute their switching strategy with him on the floor. Painter wanted to get Haas some touches because he’s a mismatch against the smaller Wolverines’ front line, but there was too much downside risk with him out there. Michigan’s offense is so dangerous that it shapes the game on both ends of the floor.

With an efficient offense and an improving defense, the Wolverines might just be the next major conference team among the midlevel seeds to make a deep run. Before Michigan can become a surprise team in March, though, they have some unfinished business left to do in the nation’s capital. While senior Zak Irvin said today’s win only adds to their confidence, Beilein made the goal clear, “Really thrilled for these kids because they came on a mission to win this championship… We’re one day closer.”

Chris Stone (136 Posts)

Chris Stone is a contributor to the Big 12 microsite. You can find him on Twitter @cstonehoops.

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