3/17/2017 – Michigan 92, Oklahoma State 91 – 25-11, NCAA second round
3/19/2017 – Michigan 73, Louisville 69 – 26-11, Sweet 16
Michigan's NCAA tournament weekend was a lot like what I imagine it's like to enter Earth orbit.
You are strapped to a rocket. In the English language, "rocket" is shorthand for "tube that barely contains fuel." When lit, that fuel explodes; the rocket shunts the exploding bits out its rear to create the kind of incredible, bowel-threatening acceleration that allows one to escape the surly bonds of earth.
I'll be damned if there's a better metaphor for playing Jawun Evans and Oklahoma State. To watch this Oklahoma State team is to be continually surprised that Evans does not literally have flames coming out of his ass, propelling him inevitably towards death or glory at the rim.
At first, there was a lot of noise but not much action. This is also in keeping with rockets, which have various moments early in the enterprise when it is unclear whether the thing will go up or tip over, explosively.
After ten minutes when the game threatened to teeter over into a dud, the acceleration took, and did not stop until all observers were weak kneed and gripped with pallor, as if the blood had been forced from their heads.
Rockets do not have men in grimy outfits and train engineer hats frantically heaping fuel into a furnace to keep the thing from sputtering out and allowing gravity to reclaim what is rightfully hers. Our metaphorical rocket does. The men in hats are flinging three pointers, desperately attempting to stay ahead of gravity's brutal math. Evans and company are providing a constant drag of 1.58 points a possession. Walton and Irvin and Robinson must pump at least that much into the ever-hungry, blazing heart of the engine.
Amazingly, they do so. At first it seems easy. Walton drifts to one corner and then the other to work screens and grab passes for wide open looks. Robinson comes off a screen and rises up from a comfortable spot. A couple of transition opportunities find guys open in the corners. Things are going well—very well—but so far you can chalk it up to a bunch of open looks and good fortune against the nation's #133 defense.
Two things happen nearly back-to-back that take it into the realm of the spooky. Zak Irvin comes off a screen, takes a dribble, and fires an objectively bad shot, a heavily contested jack that draws the NO NO NO YES reaction not just from all Michigan fans but also the announcers. Almost immediately after this, Walton passes to Robinson, who's two or three feet from the line and getting more than a token contest. Walton yells at Robinson to shoot. He probably shouldn't shoot. Robinson shoots. It goes down, because of course it does. A bit later, Walton ignores DJ Wilson posting up a 5'11" guy to take this:
This goes down. Because of course it does.
As all this is happening, Evans is taking his rocket ass into the lane to claw two points back, like gravity does. Gravity draws you back at a constant 9.8 m/s^2, and you either beat it or you don't. Michigan beat it, in the way movies portray the first stage of rocket liftoff. There is a tremendous amount of noise. The camera shakes impressively. One of the cast members says "ohhhhhhhhh shiiiiiiiiiiiiit." There is a moment of unbearable tension as the G forces ramp up to the maximum humans can tolerate.
Then everything stops. There's a clunk as the first stage departs. You have won! You are alive. You are very high in the air on a fatal trajectory.
You've dropped your first-stage booster and watched it burn up in the atmosphere. (Underwood's stunning, immediate departure for Illinois will do nicely in our analogy.) Now you are up up up very far and have entered the realm of orbital mechanics. I've read just enough science fiction to not understand orbital mechanics at all.
The gist seems to be that certain things are all but impossible despite seeming easy, while other things are damn near free because of... reasons. The image above is something called the "interplanetary transport network," which allows you to visit any point of interest in the solar system—eventually, very eventually—by hopscotching through Lagrange points where all the competing gravities of the system average out to zero. This is virtually free in terms of energy.
These are tiny pinholes in a vast expanse of quicksand. Reaction mass is limited and space is very big.
Louisville basketball has four centers and plays two of them at a time, and if you want to get a shot up it's time to hunt for Lagrange points.
Mo Wagner changed the way most teams defend Michigan with his white-hot first half against Purdue. After halftime the desperate Boilermakers decided they were going to switch every screen no matter what kind of ludicrous matchups resulted. Michigan was initially confused, and then Wagner was forced to the bench with foul trouble for nine minutes of the second half. By the time he returned there were only a few possessions before Michigan's Lloydball clock-drain offense made the switching moot. Painter's move exited the game more or less untested.
That did not prevent it from quickly being replicated, to middling-at-best effect. The constant switching did dull the effectiveness of Michigan's pick and roll. It dared Michigan to post up, which they simply do not do. It's pretty easy to holler about exploiting a post mismatch when you are a fan looking at a 5'11" guy on DJ Wilson. It's evidently much tougher when you are part of a Beilein basketball organism that forcibly expelled post-ups from its DNA back when it was using flagella to florp around in its Canisius days.
So the switching mostly resulted in a lot of isolation with Walton or whoever against a big. It took Michigan's silky, flowing offense and battered it down to the heroball stuff you see at Kansas or Kentucky, except without the infinite alley oops. Since Walton stepback threes are Very Good Offense, somehow, the switching didn't really slow Michigan down much. All it did was cause me to goggle at Michigan bigs guarded by oompa-loompas and be like all "AARGH THROW IT TO THAT GUY."
There was that particularly brutal possession pictured above on which DJ Wilson was trying to post up a 5'11" dude and Walton decided to jack up a 35-foot three pointer. This went in because of course it did; whether or not Michigan could do anything with this tactic in the event that Walton jacks stopped being Very Good Offense remained an open question. No longer.
In the aftermath of Sunday it is possible to interpret Michigan's somewhat frustrating inability to take advantage of said oompa-loompas as a devastating long con. Louisville entered the game with a plan: no threes. They would switch everything to remove the rotation, because Michigan will get you eventually if you rotate. They would refuse to help in the post, because that results in rotation. They would make Michigan execute a thing they simply do not do. In an advantageous situation, sure. But they wanted to make the fish ride the bicycle.
The fish rode the bicycle.
It popped wheelies.
Louisville's tactic backfired spectacularly in the second half. The tiny windows their giant posts leave drivers became caverns as 6'7" Adel Deng was repeatedly tasked with checking a guy much taller and more skilled than him. The posts stuck to their shooters, and Michigan lived and died by the two for a change.
Pitino did not relent. If he was going to lose this game it was two points at a time. Thus Michigan calmly and gradually reeled Louisville back in after the disastrous last minute of the first half. Screen and screen until you get your matchup, dump it down, score. Repeat. Regular, controlled thrust, easing Michigan through.
"It was some scheme things," Beilein said of his halftime talk, "but it was more: 'Alright, hit singles. Do not come out of here trying to win in the first four minutes. Let's just win the first four minutes. Let's just win the first four minutes. Win it by two points. Win every segment and you'll win the game.'"
Too bad that doesn't fit on a whiteboard.
So here we are. Orbit. It's nice. Very pretty. Can see Phoenix from here. Or Glendale. Whatever. Just two more harrowing white-knuckle terrordomes to go.
The most explosive team in the country is in the rear view. So too is a nation of angry ents. Confidence is through the roof, relative to your average white-knuckle terrordome experience. Let's go.
SAY 'WHAT' AGAIN, uh, SIR (via @the_mikeyb1246)
"Since Maverick" update. Michigan is up to #6 nationally in adjusted efficiency margin:
Amongst teams still in the tournament they're #3 behind Gonzaga and Florida. You'll note they're a nose ahead of Kansas.
First-round victim Oklahoma State shows up at #12. (They have a lot of losses, yes. In this time period they were all against tourney teams: two against Kansas, two against ISU, one to Baylor, one to KSU, one to Michigan. Most of those were 3-5 point games.) When I tweeted this out after the game I meant it:
Michigan just won a Sweet 16 game in the first round.
— mgoblog (@mgoblog) March 17, 2017
That felt like a #2 going up against a #3. This is not a seeding complaint, or at least it's not much of one. Oklahoma State, like Michigan, was a team that got a ton better about halfway through January and was 1) more or less fairly seeded while 2) being a terrible draw for whoever got them. Michigan did, and barely survived despite scorching the nets.
Finally, the road doesn't get any easier in the Sweet 16 as Michigan draws #10 Oregon. That hurdle is significantly lower with Duck post Chris Boucher out for the season. Oregon's given up significantly more than 1 PPP in the three games since Boucher's injury, against offenses ranging from "somewhat worse" to a "a lot worse" than Michigan.
DJ Wilson, sometimes center, is a thing. Wagner finished the Okie State game on the bench just like he finished the B10 championship game, and this was fine because DJ Wilson was functional at center. The opposition didn't have the ability to blow him away with guys who are both very burly and very athletic. Ethan Happ is burly but not that athletic and Wilson's length bothered him. Mitchell Solomon is pretty much the same minus the post-up skills.
Michigan's ability to go small against a light-speed team and then run Wagner and Wilson at the same time against Louisville provided them the flexibility to get past two crazy outlier teams with just one day of prep. That's a major asset.
Expect more of that going forward: Oregon is minus a 6'10" center they played 20 minutes a game and is now a small-ball outfit that runs out one player taller than 6'7" at a time*. Kansas is along the same lines, with wing Josh Jackson playing the 4 for them most of the time. DJ can play center against both, and likely will.
*[To be specific, 6'9" Jordan Bell is their 5 and they'll give 6'11" Kavell Bigby-Williams 10-15 minutes a game spelling him. Dillon Brooks is the only other Oregon player seeing meaningful minutes who's taller than 6'4".]
Donnal survived against Louisville. Credit to the most maligned current Wolverine: Mark Donnal hit a three and blocked a shot in nine minutes, which went a good way towards offsetting the facemashing he's naturally going to receive when he finds himself trying to check UL's infinite conveyor belt of giant dudes.
I wasn't even irritated at Donnal's foul, which was an enthusiastic boxout of lanky 7-footer Anas Mahmoud. He got whistled for a foul that seemed impossible, because I've spent all season watching Michigan bigs take the same contact and get blasted off their spot. Donnal flipped the script and got a foul for his troubles. Better that than weak post D.
Walton didn't score much against Louisville, but... naturally he led the team in rebounds with seven and had six assists to zero turnovers. Also he was instrumental in harassing Quinn Snider into an 0/9 shooting performance. Also:
Michigan committed 10 turnovers, total, in its first 2 NCAA Tournament games.
Derrick Walton Jr has 17 assists & 3 turnovers in 75 minutes.
— Brendan F. Quinn (@BFQuinn) March 20, 2017
Shot parity: close enough! Against UL Michigan lost the offensive rebound battle by six; they won turnovers by five. That'll do when you're the most efficient shooting team around. Against Oklahoma State it was dodgier, with Michigan –10 in OREBs while only ending up +6 in turnovers. Still, if you told me Michigan was going into a game with a top ten OREB offense and came out only –4 in shot margin I'd take that.
There is an alternate universe of Wagner foul bitchin'. One man's comically inept refereeing is another man's comically inept refereeing multiplied by –1, and I have to relate to you, dear reader, that it is the opinion of many Louisville fans that Mo Wagner commits offensive fouls every time he touches the ball.
— Williamncaudill (@wncaudill) March 19, 2017
This is not the most convincing ref incompetence highlight reel I've seen.
I imagine this stems from one of the first times Michigan went after the Deng Adel-Wagner mismatch in the first half. Adel flopped at the same time Wagner appeared to go for the ol' chicken wing on his path to the basket. The refs did not bite on the flop and the wing met air; Wagner went for an easy bucket. After that everything Wagner did seemed to set off cascades of complaints on UL game threads.
Big Ten seeding complaints on point. After the bracket came out there was consternation about the ordering of various Big Ten teams, and it was proven correct. 5 seed Minnesota was a Vegas dog against 12 MTSU and duly lost. Maryland was hammered by 11 seed Xavier. Meanwhile Wisconsin beat Villanova and Michigan beat Louisville to reach the Sweet 16.
The sample sizes are necessarily tiny here, but since there was plenty of evidence before the games were even played they serve to reinforce the fact that the tourney was badly mis-seeded.
Also worth noting that MSU was the only 8-9 not to give its opponent a competitive game. Wisconsin won, Northwestern battled valiantly before losing by 6 thanks in part to that missed goaltend, Arkansas led in the last four minutes. Hell, you can rope in the two seeds here as well: Michigan and South Carolina won while St Mary's and Wichita State battled valiantly to the final whistle. Only Michigan State was blown out, as you would expect them to be.
Wooooof. There was a plague of refereeing blunders this weekend that should but almost certainly won't be the cause for some soul-searching at the NCAA. The most egregious miss—Northwestern's comeback-stalling missed goaltend—saw the NCAA's head of officials show up on one of the studio shows to lamely defend the refs working the game because he, a 70-year-old man watching on TV, didn't catch it. I expect slightly more from a man literally standing under the basket.
Anyway, there were some doozies in Michigan's game, none worse than the two calls late in the first half against Louisville. The first was a phantom call on Walton that turned a turnover into two free throws for UL; the second was the Wagner open-court steal that again turned into two free throws. With Michigan likely to get a fast-break bucket if the second call isn't made that was a six-point swing just after Michigan had finally managed to claw its way back into a tie.
At that moment I could only think of the Trey Burke block and a couple other calls in the title game that prevented that one from truly going down to the wire, as it deserved to, and I resolved to never watch basketball again. I resolve this several times a season, and sometimes multiple times in one game.
And the worst bit about all this. Yahoo has an accurate summation of the worst five calls of the weekend:
- Gonzaga goaltend
- North Carolina's travel/charge/travel/charge
- Arizona's Lauri Markannen blasting a St Mary's player out of bounds, for which the St Mary's player got call
- The Plessy v Ferguson flagrant in Seton Hall vs Arkansas
- A horrendous charge call EC Mathews picked up in Oregon-Rhode Island.
Every single one of these made a tight game less tight, and every one of them favored the higher seed. (Seton Hall-Arkansas was an 8-9; the rest were serious upset bits.) A lot of the drama of March Madness was sapped by referee errors.
John Beilein’s defining characteristics (at least publicly) are being incredibly nice/genuine and being a bit, how do you say, hokey. In 2013, he celebrated going to the Sweet 16 with crazy subs, and this year has taken to ambushing players with water guns after big wins. It’s notable when he freaks out on the sidelines about the officiating because (a) it almost always means he’s getting a technical, and (b) he’s almost always right, and has held his tongue for untold transgressions up to that point. Maverick Morgan called Michigan “white collar” this year as a pejorative about their toughness, and more than a few fans felt the Wolverines reflected Beilein’s temperament. Both Louisville and Okie St. outrebounded Michigan this weekend, and a common refrain was that the team didn’t play tough enough on the glass.
But behind that gentile veneer is the heart of a killer. Okay, maybe not “killer”, but as Ace noted, quite evil. He knows what his offense can do to other teams. Matt Painter was exasperated trying to explain the difficulties defending Michigan, the harsh realization that your center has to defend a guy who shoots over 40% from three and can also shake-and-bake you behind his back on the way to the hoop. That even when the outside shot isn’t falling, Beilein will tax your team the entire time they are in the half-court offense, probing for breakdowns. And when they are firing from outside at a good clip, ooohhh. Oklahoma State scored 91 points and didn’t hold a lead after the 10-minute mark of the second half because Michigan shot 11-15 from 3 in the second half, a performance so scarring that OSU’s head coachg Brad Underwood left the Cowboys…for Illinois. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Matt Norlander on the narrative. John Beilein on ESPN:
D.J. Wilson, another of the day's stars, sank four free throws in the final 17 seconds.
That pragmatism? It was on full display. Wilson, a sophomore, made each free throw like he was in the driveway. Asked about the pressure of the moment later, Wilson sat stone-faced and said: "I don't feel any really."
Five key plays from Oklahoma State.
Etc. Rodger Sherman on Wagner. Pat Forde thinks Beilein is famously serious. Must not know about subs. Michigan is a one point favorite over Oregon. Hang on to your butts. Hoo boy does the Underwood departure suck for Okie State. Illinois fans are happy, as they should be. Oklahoma State fans shouldn't be.