3/22/2014 – Michigan 79, Texas 65 – 27-8, Sweet 16
The last time Michigan played an NCAA tourney game involving a two seed, it was their first bid in ten years. After not quite blowing a huge lead against Clemson in the 7-10 game they ran up against a brick wall named Blake Griffin. Insofar as you can call one of the most athletic dudes on the planet a "brick wall," anyway.
Michigan was still not exactly complete at this juncture. Manny and DeShawn headlined; the rest of the starting lineup consisted of freshman versions of Novak and Douglass plus the CJ Lee/David Merrit walk-on duo. Kelvin Grady, Jevohn Shepherd, Laval Lucas-Perry, Zack Gibson, and Anthony Wright were the bench. Every time you end up looking at that roster the immediate thought is "these guys made the second round of the tournament?"
Meanwhile, Griffin's stats are as hilarious as you would expect from "Blake Griffin takes on guys like Zack Novak." He used almost a third of Oklahoma's possessions, rebounded a third of defensive opportunities, drew more fouls than anyone else in the country, and shot 66% from the floor—mostly by dunking from halfcourt. Watching him live was mostly an experience in terror. Dual undercurrents cut it: one of outrage that he could do the things he did and still call himself human, a second of excitement at the same thing.
Michigan managed to stick close despite foul trouble for Harris. Anthony Wright played the game of his career, and Michigan kept in contact. As the second half progressed, though, a feeling of inevitability fell over the proceedings. Michigan was just not good enough to make up the deficit presented them. They made a push or two; each was quickly met with a riposte.
That is entirely the wrong word, since it indicates finesse. Every time Michigan approached Oklahoma it was called a nerd and thrown bodily into a dumpster.
"Hey, Novak! Your kid is going to have a picture of that on his wall!"
Michigan lost by ten; it may as well have been a billion. Novak would later be featured in a Sports Illustrated article dedicated to all the guys Griffin has posterized. He took it with good humor, because sometimes life puts you in china shop with Blake Griffin and asks you to get it tea.
Nik Stauskas has taken to opening games with a demonstration of force. The first shot of most Michigan games is Stauskas raising up over his defender to hit an eyebrow-cocking three. Welcome to the gun show, it says. I can do this whenever I want. Later he'll fly over a screen and rise up when the big starts sagging back into the lane. It goes in, because it just does. One moment is all it takes. In your face, Charlie Murphy. Stauskas is the Big Ten player of the year for a reason.
That reason is not that he has to take all of Michigan's shots. He takes barely more than an average share of them, so when you start freaking out about Stauskas the ball is in someone else's hands. That person is generally flying towards the basket (if he is Jordan Morgan) or aligning himself for a catch and shoot three pointer he knocks down at 40% (if he is anyone else). They'll bail you out with a turnover maybe twice a half.
This is a different kind of hopeless thing to be in opposition to, but it is just as dispiriting as knowing that Blake Griffin has the ball on a fast break and you are supposed to do something about it. Novak in SI:
"When I get to the three point line, I start thinking, Why am I doing this?" … "Next thing I know his feet are at my face."
You can get in deep, quick. If Michigan is going well, things will get somewhat out of hand before the opposing coach throws his hands up at the man to man defense that has been the heart of his philosophy for his entire career and goes to a zone. Yeah, against a team that shoots 40% from three. Yeah, we're not even much of a zone team. It can't be worse is the thought. Often it is followed by why am I doing this?
Texas was so discombobulated by the basketball portion of the first half that they came out in the second determined to play volleyball on one end and a random matchup zone on the other. It worked, a bit. Texas pulled to within six. Things threatened to get serious, but then a rather important flaw in the idea of playing zone against Michigan presented itself. First Robinson got lost, then LeVert, then Albrecht.
They rained in death from above, as they are wont to do.
I know that look. I have had that look, when Blake Griffin was doing Blake Griffin things and the only response was stare ahead and think what is anyone supposed to do about THAT?
I thought about Griffin in the second half as Texas drew nearer. I was nervous, of course, but it was only a part of my consciousness instead of its entirety. In a commercial break someone said something about the last four minutes of stagnation, and I said they were still getting great looks and they would be fine. It then dawned on me that I meant it.
I was not waiting for the roof to fall in. I was waiting for water to find its level. And then it did. They're still bigger and stronger than Michigan, but these days it's the bullies getting put in the dumpster.
The column in one emoji. I could have just embedded that LHN tweet instead.
I'm not just going to do Novak like that. I did write a thing about Novak getting posterized that I should link if I'm going to include that picture.
Epic victory. Jordan Morgan flat wore Cameron Ridley out, with an assist from the opening nine-minute stretch of gametime without a whistle. Ridley was coming off a 17-point, 12 rebound, 4 block, 2 A, 0 TO performance against Arizona State's 7'2" shotblocker Jordan Bachynski.
Morgan limited him to 5 FGAs and six points and out-rebounded him. And he had 15 points himself in a fashion so quiet I exclaimed "how did that happen?" when someone mentioned it to me in the immediate aftermath.
That is a terrific sign for Morgan's matchup with Vol Jeronne Maymon, who is another 6'8" widebody post type.
The slowdown. [@ right: Stauskas shoulda coulda woulda thrown this down and blown the roof off, but alas. Dustin Johnston/UMHoops.]
The zone did put a brief halt to Michigan's offense after it adapted from a straight 2-3 that Michigan melted into a pile of scrap. To my eyes that drought was largely bad luck. Stauskas had a Blake Griffin-level dunk rattle out; Robinson had a putback facilitated by the zone go halfway down before popping out; a couple of open looks didn't fall. It happens. And then water finds its level.
The best scouting report ever. The way that game played out was downright eerie. Isaiah Taylor takes nothing but floaters; Isaiah Taylor took nothing but floaters aside from a couple of takes where he actually got to the basket, and then he finished with the most Isaiah Taylor line ever: 8/22, all shots from two.
Junk defense after junk defense. The hypothesis that Illinois actually did Michigan a favor by scaring the hell out of them with a 2-3 zone is now upgraded to a theory. It took about four possessions for Texas to decide a straight up 2-3 was even more doomy than their man to man, with the last straw a Morgan dunk from the baseline.
They then switched to a 1-3-1 for one possession, which frustratingly saw Michigan do nothing for about 30 seconds until Stauskas rose for a long contested three that led to a transition opportunity. Barnes immediately shelved that in favor of an odd-looking matchup zone that I couldn't quite figure out. Michigan seemed hesitant about it, too, but eventually Texas started matching up with the wrong dudes. There was that one LeVert three on which he didn't have anyone within ten feet of him.
Mildly mitigated. Normally you'd look at a game in which Michigan picked up 11 offensive rebounds and say that was good enough for shot parity. Nope, as Texas spent the second half rebounding damn near every one on their infinite misses and finished the game with more OREBs than Michigan had DREBs.
That is an alarm bell heading into a matchup with a burly Tennessee outfit, though again some of those just seem like crappy luck. Texas guards grabbed eight of their offensive rebounds and two were credit to "team"; Morgan and Robinson nearly matched the posts' contributions with seven offensive rebounds to Holmes and Ridley's nine. If that minor advantage holds up for the Tennessee posts I'm feeling pretty good about Friday.
Must work on free throw defense. Texas goes 15/16. Cumong man. Michigan did give most of those FTAs to the Texas guards and not their bricklaying bigs, so they couldn't have expected 10/16… but still. Maybe I shouldn't be complaining in a game where Morgan goes 7/8.
A quick look at Tennessee. Much more on this later, of course, but at first glance Tennessee is Texas after leveling up a few more times. They don't shoot well but make up for it by pounding the offensive boards; their defense is tough to shoot against and doesn't force many turnovers. Unlike Texas, Tennessee does a good job of preventing threes from being launched. They also have a semblance of outside shooting.
As you've probably heard, the Vols are huge Kenpom darlings, currently 6th in the rankings despite being an 11 seed. They're favored by a point in a game Kenpom sees as a virtual tossup, and trash Kenpom at your peril—they certainly made short work of UMass and Mercer after an OT win against Iowa.
As per usual, bizarrely high computer rankings are built on margin of victory. Tennessee spent the year blowing out SEC opponents or losing to them narrowly. They finished the year with 76-38, 82-54, and 72-45 win over Vandy, Auburn, and Mizzou; they beat Virginia by 25 in December. They also lost to UTEP, NC State, Texas A&M, and Vandy. They're also 0-3 against the Gators.