INDIANAPOLIS — Top-seeded Michigan salvaged the Big Ten’s best hope for NCAA Tournament glory Monday, getting 21 points each from Chaundee Brown and Eli Brooks in a a roller-coaster 86-78 victory over talent-rich LSU.
In a game full of big runs, the Wolverines (22-4) used the biggest — 14-1 over the decisive stretch midway through the second half — to pull away and preserve a glimmer of hope for a conference that has mostly tanked these four days in Indianapolis.
After the win, Michigan and Maryland — which played later Monday — were the only teams left for the Big Ten after it placed a nation-leading nine in the bracket.
Michigan moved on to its fourth straight Sweet 16, where it will play Colorado or Florida State next weekend. The Wolverines will be the best hope for a conference that has already seen another 1 seed (Illinois), a 2 (Ohio State) and a 4 (Purdue) hit the highway.
After Michigan took a one-point lead into halftime, this game had massive momentum swings: an 8-0 run early for LSU; a 10-0 streak for Michigan; another 5-0 run for the Tigers.
But during the stretch that opened things up, Michigan did what typical Big Ten teams are supposed to do — wore down smaller, less-deep opponents with height and shooting.
Brown, the 6-foot-5 guard, did the most-lasting damage, making six free throws and a 3-pointer during the decisive stretch that gave the Wolverines a 72-64 lead with 5:55 left.
Then it was 7-1 freshman Hunter Dickenson (12 points, 11 rebounds) and 6-9 projected first-round NBA pick Franz Wagner (15 and seven) who shut down LSU with defense.
LSU’s Cameron Thomas went from lighting up Michigan to barely being able to get a shot off. He finished with 30 points but it took 23 shots, and he went 3 for 10 in the second half.
One of the misses came on a rejection underneath by Dickenson, and moments later, Javonte Smart suffered the same fate. His 27 points kept LSU in range in the second half, but Wagner rejected him underneath at the end of that stretch. The Tigers (19-10) finished shooting 39 percent from the floor.
Though the Tigers lost, the bulk of this game induced some head-scratching. Nobody with eyes and a cable sports package could have thought Loyola Chicago, which beat the Illini by 13 on Sunday, was an 8 seed. LSU clearly had better than eighth-seeded talent, too.
But Michigan looked like a legit 1, especially once coach Juwan Howard started slamming the table and begging for a defensive effort that went lacking, especially in the opening minutes when Thomas got into heat-check territory with 12 points over the first 8 minutes, and not a single of them coming from inside of 15 feet.
Once the Wolverines started defending the perimeter, things changed. They started looking like a Big Ten team again. And the Big Ten’s hopes looked much better than they had a few hours earlier.