Michigan is in the Big Dance for the first time since 1998 and facing a faltering, but tough, Clemson team who is now a No. 7 seed after spending much of the season in the conversation as being a possible top-four seed in any region of the tournament.
The Wolverines on the other hand are coming in right off the bubble after a shaky Big Ten season preceded by a non-conference schedule that went way beyond expectations.
Both teams have difficult defenses to figure out. Michigan runs a half-court 1-3-1 zone that causes havoc in the backcourt and leads to lots of opposing turnovers.
Clemson runs a full-court press after every basket they make which not only leads to lots of steals , but also lots of backcourt, 10-second and shot clock violations. This type of defense puts a huge burden on the Wolverine point guards, they are going to have to find a way to get the ball up the court reliably and not turn the ball over in the process.
"In the Big Ten I don't think there's another team that's full-court pressing for 40 minutes," said Michigan coach John Beilein on Clemson's defense. "That can be a good thing, that can be a bad thing, let's see how we react."
- When Michigan has the ball
The key matchup for Michigan offensively is how will their point gaurds avoid the press. While they have beaten teams with full-court press before, specifically Indiana and Minnesota.
Those teams did not run it after every single made basket in the game. Generally their go-to point gaurd when a press gives them trouble is sophomore Kelvin Grady who has recently been relegated to bench duty for inconsistent defensive play.
Some question fifth-year senior C.J. Lee's ability to get up the court with sophomores Dermontez Sitt and Terrence Oglesby harassing him everytime he brings the ball up the court. Both of these men have a two inch height advantage on Lee, which they can use should he try to pass it across the timeline.
The Tigers don't have a large height advantage over Michigan in the front court, but it could be enough with junior Trevor Booker and senior Raymond Sykes being the two team leaders in blocked shots having height advantages over sophomore Manny Harris (the Wolverines best player) and junior Deshawn Sims (who has been carrying the team down the stretch this year) respectively.
If they can prevent these two players from getting any sort of inside game going to offset the affect of Beilein's three point oriented offense, then Michigan had better hope their outside shooting is sharp that day, because they will need it.
- When Clemson has the ball
Unlike Michigan's offense which has had a rotating third scorer to go with Harris and Sims this year, whenever they can get one, Clemson has three players who average double figures in Booker, Oglesby and senior swingman K.C. Rivers.
This consistency in scoring could be tough for the Wolverines who haven't faced many teams that distribute the ball as well as the Tigers do. Also, all three of their leading scorers average over 39 percent from beyond the arc—problematic for a defense designed to force a team outside.
Fortunately for Michigan, Clemson does turn the ball over a fair amount. Both Sitt and Sykes average more than two turnovers a game and their three leading scorers average at least one a game. If the Wolverines can get those numbers to increase, they might be able to get some baskets in transition and make times tough for the Tigers.
The momentum going in this game might be what gives Michigan the biggest advantage. Clemson has lost five of their last eight games including losses at home to Virginia Tech and in the ACC tournament to Georgia Tech, both of whom missed the tournament.
Michigan has done the opposite, winning five out of eight including wins over two tournament squads in Minnesota and Purdue. The Wolverines needed to prove themselves down the stretch in order to get to this level. Clemson got in based largely on their amazing 16-0 start to the season despite now having a 25-8 record.
- Who they'll play next.
Whoever wins this game will probably play Oklahoma in the second round, while Morgan State may put up a valiant effort, it is going to be nearly impossible to shut down the Sooners All-American sophomore center Blake Griffin.
Griffin could be a top-10 NBA draft pick this year if he plays well in the tournament. Any team who plays them will have to figure out a way to negate Griffin because his performance is invariably tied to the Sooners performance, when he is hot, so are his teammates.