3/22/2018 – Michigan 99, Texas A&M 72 – 31-7, Elite Eight
3/24/2018 – Michigan 58, Florida State 54 – 32-7, Final Four
Michigan's games this week had little in common with each other. One was a delightful firebombing that was all but over by the second commercial break; the other was a tense defensive chess match. (For a given definition of chess.) Michigan shot a gorillion from three, and then reverted to that bad old Wichita stuff where you might as well hand out blindfolds and cigarettes. Michigan's efficiency stars emerged and then evaporated.
The common thread, such as it was, between both wins: the bricklayers. The guys who have flung free throws at the basket with the smoothness of a man with a basketball lodged in his esophagus attempting to aim a Heimlich maneuver. It was the universal consensus of the Michigan fanbase—both the crazed and somewhat less-than-crazed wings—that the season would end in what-if disappointment when several critical free throws down the stretch hit the underside of the backboard. Zavier Simpson and Charles Matthews would be the likely perpetrators. This was okay-ish in a year that seemed headed for the NIT when Michigan was down 15 to UCLA, but You Just Cannot Win Basketball Games Like That. But we braced for a what-if.
I was amongst these people, and you're lying if you say you weren't, too. When Florida State whittled down a ten point lead into a shot to tie largely thanks to missed front ends, that prophecy loomed almost as large in my mind as "No Scrubs," which has been a permanent resident since we put it on a podcast a week ago. Even Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman, the laser-eyed hero of the Maryland game, has seemingly contracted the bug. Many thoughts flit back and forth when a very important basketball game is in the balance, and only in the aftermath can you hope to sort out the rational from the paranoid and insane.
In the repose of a Monday, it seems that a good way to win basketball games is to suck at free throws and be up ten anyway. Or 20. 20 is preferable.
TJ Starks had no idea. Even afterward, he had no idea. You can maybe forgive a brash statement or two after he put up 21 in an A&M blowout of the defending national champion. Can't expect every 18-year-old point guard's browser to autofill the "enpom.com" after typing in a K. "Unguardable," he said, in a press conference, and the papers duly printed these words in big letters, because they were bold and silly.
I like to think that Zavier Simpson found out about this because he has a DAMN FOOL OPENS MOUTH Google Alert, but probably one of the student managers sent it to him. I like to think the student manager has a THIS MIGHT ANGER ZAVIER tab folder or instasnap folio or whatever it is the kids are using. This seems far more likely. I like to think that there's one guy on the team that continually shows Simpson tweets from six months ago, and that after TJ Starks had a press conference he fist-pumped and took a two-hour vacation for the first time in a month.
And I like to think that when the student manager showed Simpson the silly quote that he had no reaction except for a slight nostril flare.
A few days later, Starks is holding his own intestines as he asserts that he still feels unguardable. "Do you still feel unguardable?" is kind of a rude question to ask a guy who is holding his own intestines. But ask they do, and Starks answers in the affirmative, and… okay. You know what, actually? As a Michigan fan, thanks.
That went right in the folder. Even after a 38 ORTG, 2/11, 1 assist, 5 TO night during which Simpson set a personal best with six steals—five of which were during the first half blitz that turned the second half into a rote exercise—it went in the folder. Not acknowledging what happened might help you; it certainly causes nostrils to flare.
A couple days later a presumably-still-furious Simpson did (most of) this to FSU's two point guards:
- CJ Walker: 2 points on 4 shot equivalents, 0 assists, 3 TOs, 35 ORTG
- Trent Forrest: 7 points on 8 shot equivalents, 2 A, 2 TO, 89 ORTG
Simpson finished his weekend by anticipating a desperate FSU three as the clock ran down and getting his hand on yet another ball, forcing a guy who wasn't even his man into a desperation heave that was nowhere close.
Also he missed a couple free throws.
I had no idea. Even afterward: no idea. There were no brash statements about Charles Matthews, really, just assertions that maybe he shouldn't be Michigan's highest-usage player if he's going to turn the ball over buckets—assertions that didn't seem that controversial as Michigan moved usage to Abdur-Rahkman so that he could set New York City alight. But you never know when something's going to click.
So a couple possessions after Charles Matthews got a drive swatted into the crowd by one of A&M's twin towers, he went in again. Up fake, large man jumps into crowd himself, easy finish. From there Matthews took the lead role as Michigan blunted every one of A&M's attempts to get back in the game—or even get it under 20. He drove by the third 6'10" guy, stopped in the lane, and took one of those jumpers where he's eye-to-eye with the rim. He drove through traffic, and put up eight twos that he mostly generated himself, and finished the game with just one turnover.
The resurgence of November Charles Matthews was a B plot in a blowout. It took two days and two minutes for it to pay off. Everyone has a plan until a seven-foot Nigerian comes from the three-point line to block your layup. In the aftermath you might look at the basket like it was suddenly a dangerous thing. Michigan certainly did. Their offense bogged down almost immediately as the shock of Florida State's length settled in. It's one thing to talk about it and practice for it and entirely another when you encounter it for the first time.
Here we should probably use Matthews's full name. Charles Matthews The Kentucky Transfer was the only player Michigan had who was not shocked by Florida State's athleticism. He'd spent a year getting roasted by five stars in Lexington, and knew what it was to go up against five guys with ten guys worth of arms. He kept Michigan afloat in the first half. Hell, he hit his first four free throws to aid the cause. When Leonard Hamilton wondered how his team was down one at the break, answer #1 was "you turned it over 40% of the time"; #2 was Charles Matthews.
After the year in Lexington, Matthews spent a year getting roasted by John Beilein. In the postgame press conference he told a story of how his name during his redshirt year was "Turnover Matthews"; he recalled being told to "touch 212"—ie, run the stairs at Crisler—every practice. Nobody who'd watched him drive with a wince midseason was surprised by that.
Here: two games, 17 two-point attempts, two turnovers total. Seventeen game-saving points in a first-to-55-wins game. No idea. But there it is.
All year we've been talking about next year, hoping that will be the fusion of Michigan's newfound defensive prowess with the traditional death from above Beilein offense would… uh… get them to the Final Four. As Michigan blitzed through the Big Ten tournament, it became clear this collection of slightly misfit toys was able to outdistance their flaws.
This weekend drove the point home. Michigan's least Beilein players drove Michigan's least Beilein team to San Antonio. They've met halfway. Simpson has a semi-functional three pointer. Matthews has deferred more; has become more responsible with the ball. It was tough to see, for a while, when you've been trained to prize a rain of threes over all else, but it turns out you can use bricks to build something.
[After the jump: the most bonkers stat]