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]
The most bonkers stat. Via Zach Shaw:
After going 12-84 when failing to crack 1.00 points per possession in Beilein’s first 10 seasons, the Wolverines are 7-3 in such games this year, including 3-0 in the NCAA Tournament.
Find me a stat more bonkers than that.
Also in that article, Beilein's hiring process with Yaklich:
“I want a guy that can teach,” Beilein recalled thinking. “I don't care what you know, if you can't teach it.”
Beilein was more thorough in vetting Yaklich than Donlon — who had three 20-win seasons as a head coach. He met with Yaklich’s former high school principal, as many of his coworkers with the Redbirds as possible and even asked for practice tapes to see how Yaklich taught things.
It took six weeks, but Beilein eventually made the hire.
Attention to detail is the basketball program.
Odd call early in the A&M game. If you were wondering what the weird turnover A&M had just before the first commercial break, it was an out-of-bounds screen. You can't screen a defender while OOB, and the A&M defender had stepped out as MAAR tried to chase his man past him. That's not a foul, it's a violation like carrying or traveling. The oddity of an off-ball non-foul turnover set me a googlin' and that's what I got.
A&M might have kept zoning. A&M plays a bit of zone and went to it early after Michigan got up 9-4. They didn't get results and went away from it, and then returned for a few possesions, and then yo-yo'd back and forth as they tried to find anything that would work. These were the first few sequences:
- Tough midrange jumper from Livers goes off glass and is flukily OREB'd by Michigan after the ball hits Williams in the face, MAAR scramble drill three.
- Wide open double clutch elbow jumper from Wagner is a brick.
- 25-foot semi-contested Robinson 3 gets a friendly roll.
- Matthews hits a FT line jumper.
- Wagner misses a FT line jumper.
- Wagner hits a moderate-heavy contest corner 3.
- Simpson misses an open 3.
- Simpson drives for a layup as Teske screens the big.
That's 2/4 from two and 3/4 from three, but half of those threes were mediocre or bad looks and the OREB that set up a third wasn't the zone's fault. I kind of think that was better than having Tyler Davis try to close out Duncan Robinson and getting smoked so badly that he just watched Robinson lay the ball in? I've spent a lot of this tournament seeing bricked FT jumpers against 2-3; A&M could have given those up all day and gotten a better defensive result.
I'm probably just thinking about this because I've seen a lot of Duke and Syracuse the past week or so. The slight resurgence of the 2-3 is an interesting development because it asks the opposition to take a lot of midrange jumpers, which everyone hates now and probably get practiced a bunch less than threes.
Tough out there for a hero. Jordan Poole went from the talk of the tournament to a very bit player this weekend. The FSU playing time was fairly self-explanatory: Matthews was playing well and defense was at a premium. Getting yanked for Ibi Watson, and Watson playing more minutes than he had since the Alabama A&M game in December, is another thing entirely.
And it was seemingly all about D. Poole's offensive contribution before he got yanked was a pull-up three after A&M switched on him and an excellent post entry to Wagner. On D he tried a flop when Williams posted on him, getting called for a block and gambled poorly when A&M dumped it down to Williams on the pick and roll and was gone.
That seemed harsh. Poole was not likely to check Williams on the block, so gambling on a call or a steal is reasonable on its face. It must violate Michigan's defensive principles, which probably favor any kind of contest over nothing. I have a hunch that this was a message being sent to Poole about not sniffing his own buzzer-beater. Watson's first defensive possession was a completely blown switch that M got lucky on, a bit later he got beat for a tip-in, and then he fouled a three point shooter. His performance didn't seem any better than Poole's, and yet.
On contesting. Via bad-reranker Myron Medcalf:
The Wolverines also contested 90 percent of FSU's shots, per ESPN Stats & Information data. Think about that. The only Final Four team ranked within the top 10 on KenPom.com in adjusted defensive efficiency challenged nine of every 10 FSU shots.
also: cool hair [Barron]
Ike Obiagu, good God. If Obiagu can develop a modicum of skill he's going to be in the NBA for 15 years. I don't think I've seen someone checking a Wagner pick and pop decide to go block a shot at the rim and do it so authoritatively the ball has yet to return to Earth. Even though his shotblocking presence was crippling Michigan in a tight game it was still sort of fun. I was disappointed when he went to the bench in the second half, sort of. Not really. But sort of!
FSU is going to be fascinating next year—they're applying for a sixth year for Cofer and only lose Angola if that goes through. They only need a little refinement to be a 13-5 ACC team that's a four-seed.
Oh no baby? Leonard Hamilton started the second half of the FSU game by posting up Christ Koumadje three consecutive times; Koumadje went 1/3 and Michigan got both DREBs, in part because Koumadje was getting D-ed up one on one and wasn't going to rebound a miss.
I thought this was pretty dumb at the time but have come around on it as I think about it a bit more. My halftime theory was that Michigan should drive, pump, and kick to a wide open Wagner; Hamilton probably though that was a pretty good strategy for Michigan as well. Knocking out Wagner with a foul would hamper that. Didn't work; Wagner proceeded to brick all his open threes anyway.
A Tiny Oral History. ESPN dives in on CJ Baird's triple:
MUHAMMAD-ALI ABDUR-RAHKMAN, SENIOR GUARD: I asked him before the game, "If you get in, are you gonna shoot it?" He said, "Yeah, I'm gonna shoot it." And I asked, "Are you sure? Because a lot of people say that, then they go into the game with a couple seconds left and they're reluctant to shoot the ball."
BAIRD: I told my teammates the last couple weeks that if I go in one of these games, I'm going to shoot it. They wanted to see if I would back that up.
He did, of course, and is now done with avatars for the rest of his life. 90 year old CJ Baird is going to have the same avatar he does today.
Budget for beer. The Daily's Kevin Santo couldn't get to LA and instead got drunk at Scorekeepers' and wrote about it. It went exactly like you'd expect:
“If Michigan wins, I’m getting a butt tattoo,” he declared. “Print that.”
He said he wasn’t drunk yet, and offered his uniqname.
I didn't know the kids these days got sloshed on Corona Lights and went around spouting off all the ways they log on. But now I do, thanks to Kevin Santo.
Didn't know Jay Jay Chandler was Italian. GTFO with this, man.
FLOP TILL YOU DROP pic.twitter.com/21hRd0Dbr3
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 23, 2018
They need a big felt scarlet F to slap on people when they do this.