INDIANAPOLIS — Michigan was supposed to be in this position.
Heading to the Elite 8 behind a balanced offensive attack led by the Big Ten Player of the Year.
Except consensus preseason All-American Mitch McGary has been out of the lineup for Michigan since December 21st with a back injury that forced the sophomore big man to have season-ending surgery on January 7th.
Many left the Wolverines for dead with no chance of making it back to the Final Four after last year’s championship-game loss to Louisville. But now, No. 2 seed Michigan is one game away from doing just that after Friday’s 73-71 win over No. 11 seed Tennessee in the Sweet 16 of the Midwest Regional.
Behind a new Big Ten Player of the Year — sophomore wing Nik Stauskas — Michigan is sporting one of the most balanced offensive attacks in the country as the Wolverines look like a major threat in the Midwest thanks to its potent perimeter attack.
“We have a really confident group here,” Stauskas said. “The fact that we’ve been through that run we had last year, we just have to go out and have fun. We know what we’re capable of doing and we just try to stick to our game plan and have fun doing it.”
Michigan entered Friday’s contest shooting 39.8% from three-point range this season and that trend of hot shooting continued against Tennessee on Friday. Michigan started 7-for-9 from distance in the first half before finishing 55 percent (11-for-20) for the game.
With five different Wolverines knocking down a three-pointer, Michigan forces teams to pick and choose who to help off of on ball screens and on the perimeter. With three guys in Stauskas, sophomore guard Caris LeVert and freshman point guard Derrick Walton that can operate pick-and-rolls and hit shots from the perimeter, the Wolverines can throw a lot of different looks at an opposing defense. And that doesn’t include the offensive versatility and athleticism of sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III.
“You saw that with Texas. I feel like we had a really balanced attack in that game,” Stauksas said. “It makes it toughest for teams to guard you if you have four or five or six guys who are capable of scoring at any time. They don’t really know what to do with that. I think you saw that in the first half (against Tennessee), especially, with our spacing on the floor, they didn’t really know who to help off of, who not to help off of and it kind of led to some easy baskets.”
While Stauskas and the perimeter threats were a known commodity entering the Tournament, the continued solid play of senior forward Jordan Morgan is a huge reason why Michigan is in its current position.
Morgan and Robinson III were thought to be at a disadvantage facing Tennessee’s interior duo of senior forward Jeronne Maymon and junior forward Jarnell Stokes but Michigan held the duo to 13 points on Friday as Morgan took the potential game-saving charge on Stokes with six seconds left and the Wolverines clinging to a 72-71 lead. The senior also had a team-high 15 points and seven rebounds for Michigan after recording back-to-back double-doubles to start the tournament.
“We heard all week about they had mismatches and how we couldn’t guard them inside. I guess people forgot we play in the Big Ten and we won the Big Ten outright,” Morgan said. “So we’re not really soft around here. That’s not who we are. We lift a lot of weights. So it’s just ‑‑ I don’t know, it’s a pride thing for us. We’re not about to get punked.”
People must have forgotten that Morgan and Robinson had to defend a healthy McGary in practice last season or that they went through a tough and physical Big Ten. Michigan played a difficult non-conference schedule with games against Iowa State, Arizona, Duke and Stanford. Morgan and his Michigan teammates feel prepared to face anything by this point.
“(I told them to) have a strong chest and try to keep them off the glass and that’s what they did out there tonight,” McGary said of his frontcourt teammates against Tennessee.
Although McGary is relegated to the role of America’s most famous cheerleader during the 2014 NCAA Tournament, the sophomore dressing in uniform and warming up with his teammates before the game seemed to give Michigan an additional emotional boost.
“Obviously I’m not going to play or anything like that but I feel more connected to my teammates when I dress,” McGary said. “I think it (gave my teammates a lift for) a little bit. I also didn’t want to take credit away from them because people make such a big deal about it. I don’t think it’s that big of a deal because I’m wearing a uniform just like them.”
People made a big deal of Michigan losing Mitch McGary, but the Wolverines keep humming along and winning close games. They’re 22-4 since McGary went down with the season-ending injury and now they’re in position to potentially make another Final Four.
Not many anticipated Michigan to be in this position — given this season’s adversity — except for the confident group of Wolverines that keep hitting shots and winning close games.
“I don’t know if we’re getting lucky or what we’re doing but we just seem to have a thing about pulling out games and winning in the last couple of minutes,” Stauskas said. “Maybe that’s our toughness or resiliency to get these wins but we’ve done a great job both offensively and defensively to hold onto these games.”