When Michigan’s team plane was unable to get off the ground, its season took off. But let’s first make clear what readers of this site already know: Michigan was playing at a very high level before the Big Ten Tournament. Since the Feb. 4 loss to Ohio State, Michigan hasn’t played a bad game, losing just twice (at Minnesota in overtime and at Northwestern at the buzzer). There is a difference, however, between playing well and reaching that extra level of execution necessary to advance in a single-elimination setting.
So while the plane incident may get overstated by outsiders, there was an effect.
“I think it gave us freedom,” Zak Irvin said. “Everyone is playing loose. We go out there for our first game in practice jerseys. We embraced it. We weren’t going to let that waver us at all. We came in with goal to win the Big Ten Tournament championship and we did it. It brought us so much momentum.”
Entering the NCAA Tournament, Michigan didn’t want to be a feel-good story remembered solely for the conference championship. Beating a then-bubble team in Illinois and eventual Tournament teams in Purdue, Minnesota, and Wisconsin on four consecutive days gave the Wolverines a “why not us?” mentality.
After the Big Ten Tournament gauntlet, John Beilein said the players realized, “We can play with anybody. … I think they believed we could stick with it, have some breaks go our way, we could be playing for a while.”
Beilein has been hearing from some of the players on his 2005 West Virginia team who are comparing their run to Michigan’s. The Mountaineers also had plane issues getting to their conference tournament before winning a few games in a row (though they lost in the final). As a 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament, they won two nail-biters to reach the Sweet 16. Instead of Bobby Knight and Texas Tech, it’s Phil Knight’s Oregon program that stands in the way of Beilein reaching a regional final.
“Every time we meet we say, ‘We’re going to be champions,'” Moritz Wagner said. “At first you might think it might be a little ridiculous to say that every day. But now we’re starting to understand this is a mentality and coach wants us to embrace it. Now we are champions of the Big Ten. This is a plan that is working. It’s a great thing to embrace it right now.”
More aggressive in transition
Derrick Walton, in a weird way, was hurting Michigan’s fast break. Walton rebounds exceptionally well for a point guard, but him getting the ball and dribbling up the court is slower than him receiving an outlet pass near half court. He’s also the team’s best ball handler, so even when a teammate grabbed a rebound Walton would circle back towards him. That, along with Michigan’s other players not running at full speed, resulted in minimal fast break opportunities.
In the NCAA Tournament, Beilein has seen a change. “We’re pitching the ball ahead,” he said, highlighting this one-pass fast break against Louisville in which the ball was never dribbled:
Beilein liked that DJ Wilson timed his steps so he didn’t have to dribble; it’s something the team practices. There have been other examples from the past two games of Walton, and others, making long-distance passes.
“They’re chancy passes, but I want them to throw ’em,” Beilein said. “I want them to try and get those easy baskets. It’s so hard to score in the half court; it’s really good to get a few of those.”
Keep in mind that’s coming from an offensive guru whose team ranks third in the country in KenPom’s adjusted offensive ratings. Oregon plays slower than both Oklahoma State and Louisville, but there will still be opportunities for the Wolverines to run on Thursday—provided they execute the way they did last weekend.
Beilein said there are some things Michigan can take from its past two games to help prepare for Oregon. The Ducks will, at times, use the same offense that Oklahoma State ran. Oregon doesn’t crash the offensive glass quite as effectively as Oklahoma State or Louisville, but is still above average in that department.
Beilein is familiar with starters Dillon Brooks, Tyler Dorsey, and Payton Pritchard, having seen them many times on the recruiting trail. Brooks, Casey Benson, and Jordan Bell played against Michigan early in the 2014-15 season. Michigan won that game but lost the next night to Villanova, which had Dylan Ennis (Wilson remembers that Villanova game).
And while Chris Boucher was recently lost for the season, Bell is a very capable center. “He’s a real problem for us,” Beilein said, pointing out Bell’s offensive rebounding and 64 assists. For comparison, Wilson has 49 and Wagner has 20.
There’s also the Dillon Brooks problem. Wilson will guard him to start the game, but Irvin could defend him at times as well. Charles Matthews will likely simulate Brooks on the scout team.
Due to Boucher’s injury, the Ducks go with Brooks at the four spot. “We’re used to playing small ball; they play small,” Irvin said. “I think it’s a good matchup for us.”
Michigan hopes the variety of styles it faced through the season will help them once again on Thursday. Said Walton of Oregon: “They can really put the ball in the basket from a lot of different places. They’re athletic. … But I think we fared well against a lot of different competition this year.”