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‘Team Of Destiny?’ Sweet 16-bound Michigan is not a fluke, they are really, really good

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INDIANAPOLIS — Michigan was called a “traditionally white-collar team” by an opposing Big Ten center earlier this season. They’ve also been called the “team of destiny” since a plane crash sparked a run to the Big Ten tournament title.

Label the Wolverines however you want.

But after No. 7 seed Michigan rallied to beat No. 2 seed Louisville, 73-69, during Sunday’s second-round matchup in the Midwest Region, there is only one way to refer to this Wolverine team: really damn good.

Michigan won its seventh consecutive game on Sunday despite senior point guard Derrick Walton Jr. finally coming back down to Earth. After averaging 21.0 points, 8.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds over his last six games, Walton struggled to a 3-for-13 shooting day and only 10 points. Thankfully for Walton and Michigan, his Wolverine teammates picked up the slack as sophomore Moe Wagner had the game of his life with 26 points on 11-for-14 shooting. D.J. Wilson also chipped in 17 points, knocking down some key late free throws while also playing steady defense on the interior.

Beating a No. 2 seed like Louisville without Walton playing like the All-Big Ten caliber player that he was this season shows just how strong and balanced head coach John Beilein’s team is at this point in the season. Michigan only knocked down six three-pointers and was out-rebounded by double-digits but they still found a way to beat one of the ACC’s best teams.

Forget the “team of destiny” talk that was attached to Michigan after the scary incident involving the team plane right before the Wolverines won the Big Ten Tournament.

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With an elite floor leader in Walton, veteran wing shooters and a mix of talented and versatile big men, Michigan believes it can continue to win games and make a run in this tournament despite the prevailing, “the Big Ten is down” sentiments.

“We always believed in ourselves, not only from a shooting respect, but also on the defensive end and in the paint as well,” Wagner said. “So, yeah, I’m very happy. I just said that to Coach B, we only shot six threes today and we won. So it’s awesome. We played gritty basketball, and I think we can be proud of that.”

Walton and Zak Irvin are the senior leaders for this Wolverine team but they also have some of the nation’s most versatile big men in Wilson and Wagner.

With Wilson, Wagner and senior Duncan Robinson all being able to play on the interior while also stretching the floor from three-point range, it makes Beilein’s floor-spacing on offense that much more dangerous. When you also factor in how much ground Wilson covers on the defensive end and you can see why the Wolverines have won five straight games against teams who played in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

“There are just so many different guys who can step up on any given night,” Michigan assistant coach Saddi Washington said. “We have a group that is ready to play on any night.”

Besides Michigan having a strong core group of players who fit well together on the floor, this team has also been described as being incredibly close throughout the course of the season. Michigan’s incident involving the team plane only enhanced this team’s unique chemistry.

The message of family was hammered home once again before Sunday’s game against Louisville when Michigan assistant coach Billy Donlon opted to motivate the Wolverines in a new way.

After Michigan’s first-round win over Oklahoma State on Friday, Donlon saw a picture of his dad and sister hugging in the stands in a photo taken by David Jablonski of the Dayton Daily News.

Donlon was so touched by his family’s reaction in the photo that he and the Michigan managers spent time this weekend gathering family photos from team parents to hang around the locker room.

“A lot of the talks that we give just come to you,” Donlon said. “[The photo] was my dad and sister… You don’t need any words to describe that. I saw [the photo] and it just hit me like, ‘You guys realize the impact you have on your family’s lives?’

“And the message was just really simple: this is another opportunity to impact the lives of each other and our families. Give a little extra for them.”

Scott Phillips, NBC Sports

Donlon carried the photo of his dad and his sister in his pocket while other family photos of players and coaches were all over the Michigan locker room. There was also a photo of a snarling pitbull mix — which Michigan calls “Toother” — a reminder of when Illinois center Maverick Morgan implied that the Wolverines were soft earlier this season.

When the Wolverines found themselves down by eight points at halftime to Louisville on Sunday, the family photos were there for one more extra slice of motivation to help them get over the second-half hump.

Michigan was finally able to make its move in the second half as Beilein was especially pleased with how the Wolverines didn’t press to get it all back right after halftime.

“A team that isn’t as experienced, that might not have the poise we have, would come back and try to win it all right away,” Beilein said. “We won every four-minute period until we got ahead in the game. And just by playing in those little increments made a big difference.”

After Michigan’s second-half comeback, most of those family photos found their way on the locker-room floor. Beilein sprayed his team with a Super Soaker to change up the team’s new “water celebration” trend and many of the photos fell victim to the euphoric celebration.

Not many people expected Michigan to make it to the Sweet 16 based on how they looked earlier this season. But the Wolverines have bonded together on and off the floor and look like one of the most dangerous teams left in the field.

“We’re just having so much fun right now,” Irvin said. “None of us want this to end.”

Bubble Banter: Kansas State, Virginia Tech add crucial wins to help overcome poor schedules

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As we will do every day throughout the rest of the season, here is a look at how college basketball’s bubble teams fared on Monday night.

It’s worth reminding you here that the way winning are labeled have changed this season. Instead of looking at all top 50 wins equally, the selection committee will be using criteria that breaks wins down into four quadrants, using the RPI:

  • Quadrant 1: Home vs. 1-30, Neutral vs. 1-50, Road vs. 1-75
  • Quadrant 2: Home vs. 31-75, Neutral vs. 51-100, Road vs. 76-135
  • Quadrant 3: Home vs. 76-160, Neutral vs. 101-200, Road vs. 136-240
  • Quadrant 4: Home vs. 161 plus, Neutral vs. 201 plus, Road vs. 240 plus

The latest NBC Sports Bracketology can be found here.

WINNERS

KANSAS STATE (RPI: 55, KenPom: 37, NBC seed: Play-in): The Wildcats went and added two — potentially three — Quadrant 1 wins in their last three games, beating Oklahoma and TCU at home last week before picking off Baylor (currently 76th in the RPI, but I’d guess they’re top 75 to end the year) on Monday night. A home loss to Tulsa (RPI 112) is going to stick out, as will a non-conference SOS that ranks 344th. Those two things means that the Wildcats have a very small margin for error, but with the way they are playing, I think that they’ll do enough to get in with a seed that seems too low for them.

VIRGINIA TECH (RPI: , KenPom: 54, NBC seed: Out): The Hokies did quite a bit to change their NCAA tournament chances on Monday by knocking off North Carolina at home. It’s easily the best win on their résumé, and given that their only other Quadrant 1 win came on a neutral against a Washington team ranked 50th in the RPI, it is easily their most important win. A Nov. 16th loss to Saint Louis (RPI 147) looks really bad, but VT still has Miami twice, Duke twice, Virginia, Louisville and Clemson left on their schedule. Those are all potential top 20 wins. They’ll need them to overcome a non-conference schedule that ranked 319th.

TEXAS (RPI: 42, KenPom: 43, NBC seed: 9): The Longhorns did what they needed to do against Iowa State at home, picking up a win to help shake off the whooping they took at West Virginia on Saturday. Believe it or not, but Texas currently has four Quadrant 1 wins to their name without anything worse than a high Quadrant 2 loss — at Baylor, at Oklahoma State, Gonzaga on a neutral, Michigan at home.

LOSERS

MARYLAND (RPI: 47, KenPom: 38, NBC seed: Next four out): The Terps picked up their worst loss of the season, falling at Indiana. In a year where Mark Turgeon’s club has already lost Justin Jackson and where it seems like they suffer a new injury just about every week, a tournament berth seems increasingly unlikely. Their next two games are at home against Michigan State and at Purdue. They might beed to win both.

NEBRASKA (RPI: 64, KenPom: 67, NBC seed: Out): The Cornhuskers missed out on a golden opportunity to add a marquee win to their résumé as they lost by five at Ohio State, a top 15 team in the RPI. The Cornhuskers currently do not have a Quadrant 1 win to their name — their best win comes at home against Michigan — and the only chance they’ll have to add one the rest of the regular season comes at Minnesota, who could very well drop off that level. There are only two teams left on Nebraska’s schedule that are in the top 100 of the RPI.

BAYLOR (RPI: 76, KenPom: 39, NBC seed: First four out): Baylor lost at home to Kansas State on Monday night. They’re now lost six of eight to start Big 12 play and their next two games are at Florida and at Oklahoma, both of which would be marquee wins the Bears currently lack.

VIDEO: Kenrich Williams posterizes West Virginia

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I am not sure what was more impressive tonight, Kenrich Williams going for 14 boards and six assists against No. 7 West Virginia, the fact that he played the point for them against that press … or this dunk:

It was the dunk.

Definitely.

Alex Robinson leads TCU past No. 7 West Virginia

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You’d be forgiven if you thought that TCU’s season was done and dusted when starting point guard Jaylen Fisher went down with a knee injury that will cost him the rest of the season.

Fisher was the team’s third-leading scorer at 12.3 points and ranked second in assists. He was shooting 43.9 percent from the floor. More importantly, he was backcourt defensive presence that doesn’t exist elsewhere on the TCU roster.

When the Horned Frogs lost Fisher, they were coming off of their second loss to Oklahoma in the span of two weeks and their fourth loss in the first five games of league play. With two games against both West Virginia and Texas Tech, and a trip to Allen Fieldhouse, left on their schedule, this had all the warning signs of a season in danger of sliding into oblivion.

On Monday night, in TCU’s third game without Fisher, Jame Dixon’s club put together their best performance of the season. They held No. 7 West Virginia to 33.3 percent shooting from the floor and led by as many as 20 points in an 82-73 win in Fort Worth, a win that puts an entirely knew feel on where this season can and will go.

The biggest reason for that may be Alex Robinson.

A 6-foot-1 hometown kid and a redshirt junior that transferred into the program from Texas A&M, Robinson has seemingly always been overlooked in this TCU program. Part of that is because he’s not a great scorer or shooter. Part of that is because he isn’t really a defender. And part of is, frankly, is because he never quite got his chance.

And now, with Fisher out, Robinson is not only getting his chance, but he is making the most of it.

TCU is 2-1 in their three games without Fisher, and Robinson has been the star, averaging 12.3 points, 4.7 boards and 10.7 assists. Against West Virginia, one of the nation’s most difficult defenses to deal with, Robinson finished with 17 points, nine assists and seven boards despite barely stepping foot off of the court. He got some help from Kenrich Williams, TCU’s best player, a 6-foot-7 forward that was a high school point guard and did the heavy-lifting when it came to breaking that press.

But that shouldn’t put a damper on how Robinson played on Monday.

And it shouldn’t take away from what he has been able to do with Fisher out.

Suddenly, TCU looks like a team that found themselves on the wrong side of lucky through the first seven games of Big 12 play. They lost five games during that stretch by an average of 3.3 points. Two of those losses came when the Horned Frogs missed game-winning shots at the buzzer.

They were and have been a top 25 team that found out the hard way how tough it is to win close games in this league.

And at this point it is probably fair to say that hasn’t changed despite having a new player running the point.

Monday’s Three Things to Know: TCU, Virginia Tech and Kansas State earn big wins

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1. VIRGINIA TECH EARNED ITS BIGGEST WIN OF THE SEASON

Virginia Tech has been considered by many to be a disappointment this season. The Hokies haven’t beaten anybody notable in the ACC and the non-conference schedule didn’t deliver any signature victories.

Which is why Virginia Tech’s win Monday night over No. 10 North Carolina is so critical.

The Hokies finally have a great win to hang their hat on for the committee. Where has this version of Virginia Tech been all season?

2. TCU ALSO EARNS A SIGNATURE WIN

Entering Monday night, TCU could have rolled over and called it quits on this season.

The Horned Frogs had dropped four of five games by a total of 15 points. Talented sophomore guard Jaylen Fisher was diagnosed with a season-ending injury for TCU.

But TCU stayed strong through some adversity as they pulled off a huge 82-73 Big 12 home win over No. 7 West Virginia. Leading for nearly the entire game, TCU did a great job of slowing down Mountaineer offense as West Virginia struggled to score in the half court.

3. KANSAS STATE PICKED UP THE NIGHT’S BIGGEST BUBBLE WIN

It’s time to start keeping track of the bubble.

With March Madness creeping closer, every night will feature games with big bubble implications. Besides for TCU and Virginia Tech beating top-1o teams, Kansas State beating Baylor for a Big 12 road win was the most important bubble win of the night.

The Wildcats have suddenly won four of their last five — including wins over Oklahoma, TCU and Baylor in their last three games. Not many people are talking about Kansas State in a loaded Big 12 but they’re playing as well as any team in the league right now.

A few more wins like this and the Wildcats could play their way into the Field of 68.

Bates-Diop scores 20 as No. 13 Buckeyes slip past Nebraska

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Keita Bates-Diop scored 14 of his 20 points in the second half and No. 13 Ohio State beat Nebraska 64-59 on Monday night, the fourth victory for the surging Buckeyes in the last eight days.

The back-and-forth game had seven lead changes in the second half. A pair of foul shots by Nebraska’s James Palmer Jr. cut Ohio State’s lead to four with 2:19 remaining, but the Cornhuskers couldn’t pull any closer.

Jae’Sean Tate put the Buckeyes (18-4, 9-0 Big Ten) up by six with a layup with 1:02 left, and a pair of foul shots by Kaleb Wesson stretched it to eight. Palmer hit a 3-pointer with 12 seconds left, but Nebraska ran out of time.

Palmer had a career-high 34 points. Nebraska (14-8, 5-4) was fresh off a 20-point upset of then-No. 23 Michigan on Thursday.

Ohio State surpassed its win total for all of last season. Earlier in the day, it moved from No. 22 to No. 13 in the AP Top 25, its highest position since 2014.

BIG PICTURE

Nebraska: The surprising Cornhuskers knocked off a ranked team last week and are a better squad than last season with Palmer carrying the load, but couldn’t outlast the steady Buckeyes.

Ohio State: The Buckeyes may have been fatigued after a rugged traveling schedule and three straight games on the road. But they found a rhythm in the second half and picked up another critical Big Ten win over a good team.

NEXT UP

Nebraska: At Rutgers on Wednesday.

Ohio State: Hosts Penn State on Thursday.