A sensational start to the NCAA tournament has Michigan basketball looking like a threat to bring the national title back to Ann Arbor. Two dominant performances in the Wolverines’ first two games have largely erased memories of the weak finish to the Big Ten conference season that dropped Trey Burke and company to a No. 4 seed.
One major unknown in Michigan’s title equation is which opponents they’ll have to face if they can get by top-seeded Kansas on Friday night. Depending on which teams can pull upsets and which favorites come through, the Wolverines’ path to a championship will get much harder—or much easier.
Read on for a look at the dream scenario for John Beilein’s team: the easiest possible set of opponents to stand between them and the 2013 title.
Unfortunately for Michigan, there’s no getting out of their toughest matchup of the tourney to date.
Friday night’s opponent is set, and the Wolverines’ Sweet 16 game pits them against one of the toughest defenses they’ve faced all season: the Kansas Jayhawks.
As Wisconsin showed in the regular season, a great D can beat the Maize and Blue, but it’s not a guarantee.
Jeff Withey’s shot-blocking ability won’t help the Jayhawks defend the three-point line, and a strong shooting night from the perimeter will send U-M to the Elite Eight.
The Eagles have obviously played far above their No. 15 seed through two games, but there are still several good reasons for Michigan to hope it faces FGCU.
In the first place, wins over South Dakota State and VCU have left little doubt of Michigan’s ability to outscore other fast-paced offenses short on traditional post presences.
The Eagles are a fine team, but their own preferred playing style leaves them highly vulnerable to a Michigan team that excels on the fast break. The Wolverines will happily pit their three-point shooters against any opposing offense.
In addition, U-M’s alternative for this game (the Florida Gators) would provide a decidedly tougher matchup.
Not only do the Gators play outstanding defense, but mobile big men Patric Young and Erik Murphy would have the edge inside on any of Michigan’s forwards.
Marquette isn’t exactly the likely pick to escape a loaded East Regional, but stranger things have happened. After two nail-biting wins, the Golden Eagles will certainly have the confidence to hang with any of their regional opponents.
However, unlike Indiana, Miami or Syracuse, Marquette has a merely good offense rather than a great one.
Even as tough as Buzz Williams’ defense is, the Golden Eagles just don’t have the scoring punch to keep up with Michigan, making them the optimal pick from the Wolverines perspective.
It also wouldn't hurt Michigan any that the Davante Gardner-led frontcourt of Marquette doesn't have the length or the talent that other East Regional squads would bring to a Final Four meeting.
Clearly, 13th-seeded La Salle is unlikely even to escape the Sweet 16, let alone make it all the way to the championship game.
However, there’s no team remaining in the Midwest or South regionals that presents a more appealing matchup to Michigan.
Like the Wolverines themselves, the Explorers get the huge majority of their offense from a collection of high-scoring guards. That description also fits the VCU and South Dakota State teams that Michigan blew out of the water in the last two rounds.
La Salle can ring up plenty of points, but Ramon Galloway and his mates aren’t in the same class as Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. when it comes to lighting up the scoreboard.
(For a slightly more realistic scenario, the Wolverines could also wish for Arizona to get hot. The Wildcats are generally a strong offensive team, but the scoring outages that plagued them in Pac-12 play suggest that competing with Michigan’s high-powered shooters would be beyond them.)