It only took four minutes for one thing to become obvious to everyone at the Staples Center on Thursday night: Texas A&M couldn’t guard Michigan.
The Wolverines spent the first 20 minutes of Thursday’s Sweet 16 game carving up the Aggie defense with ruthless precision.
The Aggies tried to switch every ball screen. Michigan guards shot over their bigs and Moritz Wagner scored over their guards. Texas A&M tried to bust out its 2-3 zone defense. Michigan scored in the middle of it or over the top of it.
On the other end of the floor, Michigan point guard Zavier Simpson played one-man wrecking crew to destroy the Aggie offense at the point of attack and trigger a transition attack that left A&M without any answers.
The Wolverines led by as many as 29 points in the first half and by 24 points at the halftime horn. They showed no signs of slowing down and capped the game off with an Austin Davis alley-oop dunk and a CJ Baird 3-pointer from 25-feet.
After two wins in Wichita that felt like pulling teeth, Michigan’s Sweet 16 victory was an outright celebration.
Michigan played its best offensive game of the season (against a Division I opponent) on the biggest stage. The Wolverines scored 1.38 points per possession in a performance that was almost flawless. Michigan made 14-of-24 3-pointers and shot 64% inside the arc for a ridiculous 73% effective field goal percentage. The Wolverines didn’t turn the ball over (just 10% of possessions) and really cracked the game wide open with their ability to push the ball in transition for easy baskets and corner threes.
This wasn’t anything different than what Michigan has done all year, it was just the best that the Wolverines have executed. Teams that play two traditional big men just have no hope of defending the Wolverines without throwing out everything they normally do.
Three months ago, this was a team that looked like it had no idea what to do against a switch-everything ball screen defense. The ball would stick and isolation plays would come up empty. Now the ball moves with confidence and the Wolverines attack mismatches, but manage to do so in the context of the whole team. Yes, everything looks better when the shots fall, but this was clinical execution and some of the best ball movement that we’ve seen from the Wolverines all season.
Michigan’s defensive performance in the first half set the tone. The Wolverines were locked in defensive and contesting every shot at the basket, helping on every ball screen (Michigan’s backside help against the pick and roll was fantastic) and forcing turnovers on 20% of Texas A&M’s offensive possessions. Michigan’s ability to rack up deflections and steals (12 live ball steals for the game) completely took the Aggies out of their comfort zone and allowed the Wolverines to control the game.
The A&M bigs got their points 35 points on 17-of-25 shooting, but Michigan managed to hold its own on the defensive glass and the majority of that production came when the game was out of hand late in the second half.
At this point, it is hard to say where the show stops for Michigan. The Wolverines are a win away from the Final Four and three wins away from winning the whole thing. They’ve won 12 games in a row and show no signs of slowing down.
- Moritz Wagner: This had to be a game that Moritz Wagner dominated if Michigan was going to advance. The Aggies didn’t have an answer for his outside-inside skill set in the ball screen game. Wagner was up to the challenge as he set the tone and finished with 21 points on 8-of-12 (3-3 3pt) shooting while banging against Tyler Davis all evening. It was Wagner’s sheer offensive threat that made it nearly impossible for the Aggies to guard Michigan and it is going to be hard for just about anyone to match that threat.
- Zavier Simpson: Simpson sets the tone for Michigan. He completely took TJ Starks out of the game (2-of-11 shooting, 5 turnovers) and made him almost unplayable in the second half. Simpson was also excellent at pushing the pace and allowing Michigan to get up the court quickly and find easy offense before the Aggies could get set. The sophomore point guard attacked with more of the confidence that we saw at Madison Square Garden as he sliced and diced his way into the paint and had several impressive finishes. His final stat line was a balanced 11 points, 5 assists, 6 steals, 4 rebounds and 1 turnover.
- Charles Matthews: This might just be the best game that Charles Matthews has played at Michigan. His feel on the dribble drive and ability to finish around the rim (jump stopping and finishing on two feet!) was some of the best that we’ve seen from him all season. He finished with 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting, making 7-of-8 two-pointers including a handful of pull-up jumpers in the paint. John Beilein has referred to Matthews as “Bambi on ice” all season, but to see him make that progression and finish effectively around the basket is a massive step in his development.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: Abdur-Rahkman couldn’t find his game in Wichita, but he seems to love the big stage. He got whatever he wanted offensively and finished with 24 points on 9-of-16 (4-of-7) shooting with 7 assists to 1 turnover. Texas A&M had no problem switching its bigs on Abdur-Rahkman and he had no problem picking apart the Aggie defense when they did. His ability to get to the rim really opened things up and this game should be a reminder to any team that they can’t lose him in transition.
- Duncan Robinson: Robinson showed no fear battling against Robert Williams down low and made early 3-pointers to open things up for the Michigan offense. He also showed some ability to attack the basket with a transition dunk and a nice pump fake and drive to the rim.
- Ibi Watson: Watson saw early playing time after a quick Matthews foul and a breakdown defensive by Poole. He answered the challenge with a solid first half shift including a big corner 3-pointer. He wasn’t perfect (fouling a 3-point shooter and missing a few other looks), but he provides a nice solid defensive option off the bench.
- Isaiah Livers: Livers is still trying to rediscover his offensive game, but he gives Michigan size and athleticism on defense that is so important for 15-20 minutes in any game, but especially against a squad like Texas A&M with a huge front court.
- Jon Teske: Teske was one of the few Wolverines not to score in the game, but he played solid defense in his 9 minutes off the bench.
- Jordan Poole: Poole knocked in an early 3-pointer over the switch, but only played 9 minutes as defensive breakdowns seem to cost him some extra playing time.
- Jaaron Simmons: Simmons had 3 assists in 7 minutes and had a great transition look in the first half. He gave the Wolverines solid minutes off the bench
- CJ Baird & Austin Davis: Both guys getting the chance to score off the bench late in the game was a special moment for two guys that have spent the year on the scout team. It also speaks to just what kind of a game this was as everything turned up Michigan’s way.