Michigan Basketball: Analyzing Wolverines' Path to a Second Straight Final Four

Zach Dirlam@Zach_DirlamSenior Analyst IIMarch 19, 2014

John Beilein and the Wolverines have a daunting path to the Final Four.
John Beilein and the Wolverines have a daunting path to the Final Four.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Two times, or once if you choose to disregard games vacated by the NCAA and act like they never took place, the Michigan basketball program has appeared in back-to-back Final Fours.

The 1964 and 1965 teams, led by Wolverine legends Cazzie Russell and Bill Buntin, accomplished the feat first. A little over 30 years later, the rebellious and boisterous group known as the Fab Five guided the Maize and Blue to Final Fours in 1992 and 1993. Those banners no longer hang from the rafters of the Crisler Center—the games have been stricken from the record books—but video evidence suggests those teams are still a part of March Madness history.

Like those squads before them, the 2013-14 club has a legitimate shot to advance to the national semifinals for a second straight year.

Here is a quick flashback to how the 2012-13 team shocked countless analysts, including yours truly, and made it all the way to Atlanta as a No. 4 seed.

If you were paying close attention to the mob of players swarming Trey Burke after his miraculous shot, you will notice plenty of familiar faces. Eight members of last year's group are back, which means experience is not an issue for the young Wolverines.

Second-seeded Michigan has as much talent as anyone else in the field.

Few teams have been able to slow down Big Ten Conference Player of the Year Nik Stauskas. His ability to attack the rim at will and shoot 44.9 percent from beyond the arc make him a match-up nightmare.

Sophomore shooting guard Caris LeVert is averaging 13.3 points per game and can break just about anyone down off the dribble. Glenn Robinson III is excelling at the right time as well.

Aside from the Big Ten tournament title game against Michigan State, Robinson shot better than 45 percent and scored at least 10 points in eight straight games. In case you were wondering, the Wolverines went 7-1 during that stretch.

Freshmen Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin are both giving Michigan quality minutes, while veteran bigs Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford give it some stability in the middle.

About the only downside of the Wolverines' draw is the fact they wind up in the Midwest Region, the toughest in the entire tournament.

Midwest region stacked. Easily most difficult. Wichita (1), Michigan (2), Duke (3), Louisville (4) and Kentucky as 8 seed.

— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) March 16, 2014

How strong is the Midwest Region? It features four current top 10 teams, a former top 10 team in SLU and the preseason No. 1 in Kentucky.

— Jeff Eisenberg (@JeffEisenberg) March 17, 2014

Three of last year's Final Four are in the Midwest region. Alright then.

— Dylan Burkhardt (@umhoops) March 16, 2014

What exactly does Michigan have to go through to get to the Final Four? Let's take a deeper look at the Wolverines' difficult path to Arlington.

Second and Third Round

Arizona State has a stout defense, which could be trouble for Michigan.
Arizona State has a stout defense, which could be trouble for Michigan.Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Three No. 2 seeds have been beaten by No. 15 seeds over the past two NCAA tournaments, but the Wolverines should not have much of a problem dispatching of Wofford on Thursday.

There is one thing that could help the Terriers hang around early on, though.

Wofford assistant Darris Nichols played for John Beilein while he was at West Virginia.

— Nick Baumgardner (@nickbaumgardner) March 16, 2014

Preparing for head coach John Beilein's complex offense is tough to do in such a short amount of time. Having someone who is familiar with the scheme should help Wofford a bit. However, it cannot match the athleticism and offensive firepower Michigan brings to the table.

Junior guard Karl Cochran is a potent scorer (15.7 points per game) and nabs five rebounds a night. He has also knocked down 77 three-pointers this season and shoots 39.7 percent from distance.

Spencer Collins and Lee Skinner also average double figures, though the Terriers offense is not as potent as their scoring numbers indicate.

Cameron Ridley can give Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford problems down low.
Cameron Ridley can give Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford problems down low.Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press/Associated Press

According to Ken Pomeroy, Wofford ranks No. 237 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. Defensively, the Terriers are not much better, checking in at No. 131 in adjusted defense. Wofford is also 0-8 against teams ranked inside the RPI Top 150

Saturday is when the Wolverines will truly begin its pursuit of a second consecutive Final Four appearance. They will square off with the winner of the Texas-Arizona State clash in the 7-10 game. 

The Longhorns would be the toughest matchup on paper. Physical center Cameron Ridley and power forward Jonathan Holmes combine for 24.2 points and 15.3 rebounds per game. Those two are going to be a problem for Robinson, Horford and Morgan.

In particular, Texas has the potential to give Michigan all kinds of issues on the glass. The Longhorns grab 38.7 percent of available offensive rebounds, which makes them the sixth-best team in that department. 

They don't score the ball very well and rank No. 263 in effective field goal percentage, so the Wolverines can certainly outgun them. However, yielding too many second-chance points could wind up being the reason Michigan heads back to Ann Arbor sooner than expected.

As for Arizona State, it has similar problems at the offensive end of the floor. On defense, though, it boasts Ken Pomeroy's No. 27 adjusted defensive efficiency.

The Sun Devils do have someone capable of wreaking havoc on the interior, though. Senior center Jordan Bachynski, who stands 7'2", averages 11.1 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.1 blocks per game. That is going to be quite a handful for Morgan and Horford to deal with.

Thankfully, neither team is exactly streaking into the tournament. Both lost by at least 17 points in their conference tournaments and are a combined 5-9 in their last seven games of the season.

This is also working in Michigan's favor:

Good news for Wolverines is Beilein vs. Rick Barnes might be most lopsided coaching matchup in this tourney. Similar to Beilein-Purnell.

— Graham Couch (@Graham_Couch) March 16, 2014

Look for the Wolverines to make it out of the opening weekend, but there is cause for concern when it comes to the round of 32 game.

Sweet 16 and Elite Eight

Jabari Parker could end Michigan's run in the Sweet 16.
Jabari Parker could end Michigan's run in the Sweet 16.Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan's most likely opponent in the Sweet 16 is third-seeded Duke. The Blue Devils should be able to handle their business against upset-minded Mercer and take down whoever comes out of the 6-11 matchup.

The Maize and Blue traveled to Cameron Indoor Stadium back in December and the results were not good. The Wolverines shot just 44.6 percent from the field and committed 12 turnovers. Quinn Cook's game-high 24 points were the difference the first time around in a game that was never as close as the 79-69 final score would lead you to believe.

Do not look too much into that non-conference meeting, though.

Stauskas went into that game with an injured ankle, which contributed to his disappearing act. Expecting Stauskas to get off just two shots and score four points the second time around is foolish. 

Walton has also come a long way since the second month of the regular season. The true freshman point guard is making decisions quicker and drew plenty of praise from Beilein on Tuesday. 

"He’s really played well," Beilein told Sam Webb of The Michigan Insider (h/t UMHoops). "All three days, he played really well. He was averaging about 25-30 minutes a game, he really played well. He’s just growing every single day."

Finding a way to handle freshman sensation Jabari Parker will be Michigan's biggest challenge. In the first meeting, Parker went 7-of-14, scored 15 points and grabbed six boards.

On a neutral floor, this should be about as even a matchup as you will find in the tournament. Duke ranks second in adjusted offensive efficiency, while Michigan is third. Neither plays defense very well and are both worse than No. 100 nationally in that regard.

This will be a shootout and has the potential to be one of the best games in the tournament.

Should the Wolverines survive a rematch with the Blue Devils, they will likely meet fourth-seeded Louisville or Wichita State, the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region.

Louisville will give Michigan all it can handle in the Elite Eight.
Louisville will give Michigan all it can handle in the Elite Eight.Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

These teams are wired a bit differently than Michigan's previous opponents. Both are inside the top 10 of Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offense and adjusted defense.

Some of this can be attributed to the weaker schedules the two faced, but make no mistake about it, these two teams are legit.

From a stylistic point of view, neither one creates a significant issue for the Wolverines. Both are relatively guard-orieneted teams and do not have much of a paint presence.

Montrezl Harrell is an athletic forward capable of giving Michigan's low-post duo fits, though he is the only scoring threat listed at 6'8" or above. Russ Smith going against Stauskas could be one of the most exciting back-and-forth scoring battles in the entire tournament.

Wolverine fans will remember Luke Hancock as well. The senior small forward lit Michigan up to the tune of 22 points in last season's national title game. His shooting numbers are down a bit this season, however March has a tendency to bring the best out of some players. 

Much of the same can be said about Wichita State. The Shockers do not rely on anyone taller than 6'8" to contribute a whole lot and will not give the Wolverines an issue on the block.

Cleanthony Early, Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet and Tekele Cotton all shoot better than 44.9 percent overall and at least 36.4 percent from beyond the arc. Any of those four could go off for 20-plus points. Head coach Gregg Marshall's scheme gets all of them plenty of open looks and will definitely find a way to abuse Michigan's sub-par defense.

Still, the Wolverines will gladly go point-for-point with anybody. Wichita State and Louisville would be tough matchups, but are very winnable games as well.


Expect Michigan to go as far as the Elite Eight. The statistical history is not at all in its favor, and unless it finds a way to improve defensively, an exit in the round of 32 is very possible.

"There’s not many that are younger than us — you just lose focus on what is important in defense," Beilein said. "You need veterans to really understand and look at the big picture here. We have to keep focused on defense or we will go home very early."

As for those not-so-great statistics, the Wolverines' adjusted defense ranking is a major cause for concern.

Since 2003, 15 No. 2 seeds were bounced in the rounds of 64 and 32. Of those teams, six were No. 64 or worse in adjusted defense. Remember, Michigan is ranked No. 104. Only one No. 2 seed with a defense ranked lower than No. 41 managed to reach the Sweet 16 during that span. 

Some will argue the Wolverines' offense is good enough to overcome a sluggish defense, but the numbers do not back that up either. Only last season's Georgetown team had an offense that ranked lower than No. 32 in adjusted offense. Seven of those 15 No. 2 seeds were inside the top 10 in terms of adjusted offense.

This should give fans everywhere a reason to worry about Michigan's matchup with either Texas or Arizona State. The size both bring to the table will be an issue, and history is not going to be on the Wolverines' side.

Hopefully, Stauskas, LeVert and Robinson can carry it through those first two games and provide enough offense to make up for the nearly non-existent defense. Look for Spike Albrecht to make a few big plays in those games as well.

Should Michigan get to the Sweet 16, it should be able to outscore Duke in an up-and-down scoring bonanza. This is going to take plenty out of the Wolverines, though, which will cause its run to end in another shootout against Louisville in the Elite Eight.

Maybe if someone like Albrecht or Zak Irvin catches fire, they move on to the Final Four, but it will take something special to win four straight in the Midwest Region.

If that winds up being the case, the 2013-14 season should be considered a success. Winning the Big Ten by three games and making a second straight trip to the Elite Eight is nothing to be ashamed of. 

Advanced statistics courtesy of Ken Pomeroy unless otherwise noted.

Want to talk more Michigan basketball? Follow me on Twitter: @Zach_Dirlam.


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