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Michigan Is the Hottest Team in March Madness

Against Oklahoma State, the Wolverines couldn’t miss

(AP)
(AP)

Michigan’s thrilling 92–91 victory over Oklahoma State on Friday was a shootout. Or a barn burner. Or a track meet. However you want to call it, it was one of the best games of the first round of the NCAA tournament, with both teams pushing the pace and getting up shots quickly while alternating the lead for the entire game. It was exactly what you would expect from two teams ranked in the top five in adjusted offensive efficiency by KenPom, but outside the top 60 in adjusted defensive efficiency. In the end, John Beilein’s team just had too much firepower, as they shot an astounding 11-of-15 from beyond the arc in the final 20 minutes.

Both teams spread the floor with four and five 3-point shooters, creating acres of space in which their point guards could to operate out of the pick-and-roll. Michigan senior Derrick Walton Jr. won his matchup over OSU sophomore Jawun Evans, as Walton finished with 26 points and 11 assists on 7-of-13 shooting, while his tireless defense helped hound Evans into a subpar shooting night. The Cowboys star, who could be a first-round pick in the upcoming draft, had 23 points and 12 assists, but he shot only 10-of-26 from the field.

Only one traditional big man got minutes for either team: OSU junior Mitchell Solomon, a 6-foot-9, 245-pound bruiser. He did the best he could trying to move his feet and guard in space, but he just looked uncomfortable in a game that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in the small-ball-oriented NBA. Michigan relentlessly attacked Solomon on pick-and-rolls, forcing the OSU defense to send help and leave shooters open on the perimeter.

There was no one Solomon could guard on the Michigan roster, as they started two stretch big men in D.J. Wilson, a 36.5 percent shooter from 3, and Moritz Wagner, a 40.7 percent shooter from beyond the arc. Wagner was the only Michigan starter who didn’t make a 3 on Friday, with Walton going 6-for-9 from long range, wings Muhammed-Ali Abdur-Rahkam and Zak Irvin combining to make 7 of 12, and forward Duncan Robinson chipping in with two more 3s off the bench. Brad Underwood’s OSU team didn’t play much defense this season, but there’s not much anyone can do when the opposing offense is that hot from deep.

That has been the story for Michigan over the past week, as they bounced back from a scary incident when their plane skidded off the runway en route to the Big Ten conference tournament. With their uniforms stuck on the damaged plane, they had to play in practice uniforms in the opening game of the tournament, where they won four games in four days to claim the championship. After an up-and-down regular season during which they went 10–8 in Big Ten play, the Wolverines have caught fire at the perfect time. They shot 43.5 percent from 3 to knock off Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game, and they shot 55.2 percent from 3 against Oklahoma State.

In all likelihood, in the second round Michigan will face Louisville, which is ranked no. 7 in adjusted defensive efficiency by KenPom. It will be a battle of strength on strength, and even Rick Pitino’s fearsome matchup zone will have a tough time dealing with all the shooters Michigan can throw out on the floor. The Wolverines will have to figure out some way to slow down Louisville, but the way they shoot means they are a threat to beat anybody. Even if they lose, they are going to go down shooting, and it’s going to be a really fun game to watch.