The Michigan Wolverines advanced to the Sweet 16 on Saturday afternoon by slaughtering a very tough Virginia Commonwealth team, 78-53.
Largely overlooked as a potential national champion after a 3-3 finish in Big Ten action, the Wolverines have to be considered serious contenders now in the wake of a commanding victory.
Player of the Year favorite Trey Burke is the key to Michigan's success, and he played exceptionally well against one of the toughest defensive backcourts in college hoops.
In addition to matching the seven assists he recorded against South Dakota State, the sophomore star recovered from a rare poor shooting night by hitting 6-of-14 from the field and scoring 18 points.
Having Burke at the top of his game heading into the Sweet 16 is huge for the Maize and Blue. Just as important, however, is the strength of his supporting cast, an advantage that really came through against VCU.
Three other Wolverines scored in double figures against the Rams, in spite of an off game from Nik Stauskas (0-of-4 from deep, eight points). Mitch McGary continued to show that he deserves the starting spot he got when Jordan Morgan hurt his ankle. The freshman torched VCU for 21 points (on 10-of-11 shooting) and 14 rebounds.
McGary’s development may be the deciding factor if Michigan makes a title run. He has the strength to out-muscle smaller foes like the Rams and the speed to make plays in transition against more powerful frontcourts (such as the Kansas team that U-M might face in its next game).
McGary spent most of his time on the bench when Michigan was slumping in Big Ten play. Former starter Morgan had toughness but lacked the explosiveness that the freshman brings on both ends of the floor.
Glenn Robinson III, who provides similar matchup advantages against many opposing power forwards, has put together back-to-back strong performances for the first time in months. Adding up the South Dakota State and Virginia Commonwealth games, Robinson totaled 35 points, 15 boards, three blocks and three steals.
Robinson has grown up a great deal in the last few months. When Michigan faced Indiana in early February, he was held to two points on 1-of-6 shooting, but against the same long-armed front line in the regular-season finale, he scored 13 points while going 5-of-7 from the field.
Michigan’s first two wins of this tournament have left no doubt that it can handle smaller opponents. Bigger foes have been more of a problem for the Wolverines, but even they will have a tough time handling a team playing as well as Michigan is right now.
At this point, the biggest cause for concern for the Wolverines is Stauskas, the third of their three great freshmen.
He’s had three consecutive bad shooting games dating back to the Big Ten tournament, and Michigan will struggle to score on a great defense if he's not knocking down shots.
However, nobody who can shoot .444 from three-point range as a starter in the Big Ten is going to stay cold forever, and it’ll only take a couple of early makes for Stauskas to get his confidence back.
When that happens, Michigan’s opponents had better watch out. There isn’t a team in the tournament that’s any hotter than U-M, and there isn’t a team the Wolverines can’t beat when they’re playing at their best.