LOS ANGELES — The best defensive team John Beilein has ever coached also started to blister the nets the way Michigan has in the past.
The result was a convincing victory that served as a reminder why the Wolverines were a trendy national title pick before the NCAA tournament began.
An avalanche of 3-pointers helped third-seeded Michigan bury seventh-seeded Texas A&M 99-72 in the first of Thursday night’s two West Regional semifinals. The Wolverines sank 10 threes in the first half alone, helping them open a double-digit lead after less than seven minutes and expand it to as many as 29 just before halftime.
“Felt like we ran into a buzz saw,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. “I felt like Michigan, the first eight to ten minutes, played about as well as anybody we played against this year. They looked like how they played in the Big Ten tournament, more so than they played their last two games.”
When Texas A&M went man-to-man, Michigan identified the mismatches, attacked off the dribble and moved the ball crisply to find open shooters. When the Aggies fell back into a 2-3 zone, the Wolverines exploited the soft spots or forced the defense to collapse and then shot over the top.
Seven different Michigan players sank 3-pointers, including four from guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and three from big man Moritz Wagner. The Wolverines shot 61.9 percent from the field and 14 of 24 from behind the arc to set up an Elite Eight matchup with either Gonzaga or Florida State on Saturday evening.
“With this group of guys, we instill confidence in one another,” Michigan guard Charles Matthews said. “I can miss five straight shots, and Moe will come in my ear: The next one’s going in. And we do the same for each other. So when you have a support system like that, you keep shooting, keep playing, and that builds your confidence up every game.”
That Michigan is in the Elite Eight for the third time in the Beilein era is a mild surprise considering the modest expectations for the program entering the season. The Wolverines started the season buried in the other’s receiving votes section of the AP Top 25 after losing three of their four leading scorers from last year’s 26-win Sweet 16 team.
Whereas most of Beilein’s best Michigan teams have been known for their spacing, skill and 3-point shooting, defense has been the hallmark of this year’s Wolverines. They miss the playmaking of Derrick Walton, the wing scoring of Zak Irvin and the inside-outside proficiency of D.J. Wilson, but they have compensated at the other end of the floor by getting better at applying ball pressure, defending ball screens and keeping opponents off the offensive glass.
One reason for Michigan’s improvement is Beilein creating a defensive coordinator position on his staff and hiring Luke Yaklich to fill it. Another has been an injection of toughness and athleticism from sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson and Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews. It has also helped that forward Duncan Robinson has dedicated himself to becoming a two-way player instead of just a shooter and big man Moritz Wagner has evolved into an active, committed rebounder.
Michigan entered Thursday’s game with the third-ranked defense in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings, 34 spots better than the program’s previous high during Beilein’s tenure. The Wolverines endured some stretches of poor shooting during their first two NCAA tournament victories against Montana and Houston, but their defensive proficiency kept them in striking distance until their offense rounded into form.
Texas A&M was supposed to pose an unusual challenge for Michigan’s defense because of the size, strength and skill of its frontcourt. That never materialized because Simpson’s fierce defensive ball pressure made it difficult for Aggies point guard T.J. Starks to get the ball to Robert Williams and Tyler Davis.
“The first line of defense against any good post-up team is extending touches on the wing with pressure,” Yaklich said. “Our guys did a great job of that. It starts with Zavier on the ball. Then our guys were all over the cuts and we bothered them a little bit.”
Starks had a nightmare game against Simpson, shooting 2-for-11 from the field and finishing with as many points (5) as turnovers. Williams had only one first-half basket and ended the game with 12 points and 6 rebounds. Most of Davis’ 24 points also came in the second half.
That wasn’t nearly enough to threaten Michigan on a rare night when its offense was as effective as its formidable defense.
In the final seconds of Thursday’s game, walk-on C.J. Baird entered the game and promptly drained a top-of-the-key 3-pointer to the delight of the maize-and-blue-clad fans in the building.
It didn’t matter who shot the ball Thursday night for Michigan. No matter what it was going in.
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