The 2018 Final Four has been set. Fans are buzzing and pundits are predicting who will cut down the nets in San Antonio. Throughout this week, I am going to highlight each of the four remaining teams and break down their roster and their chances to win it all. Today, we will be focusing on the Western Regional champions: the Michigan Wolverines. Let’s do this!
Most John Beilein coached teams are known for their offensive prowess. But this Michigan team is not your typical Wolverine squad. They only have three players to average double-digit points per game and struggle to find consistency scoring the ball.
Star center Moe Wagner is the key to Michigan’s offense. The German center averaged 14.3 points per game while shooting 52.4 percent from the field during the regular season. Wagner’s versatility allows Beilein to be creative when deploying him on offense. Even though Wagner stands at 6-foot-11 and weighs in at 245lbs, he has the quickness to work off the dribble on the perimeter and create outside shots. Most opposing centers struggle on the defensive end when forced out on the perimeter.
The offensive MVP in the NCAA Tournament for Michigan has undeniably been Charles Matthews. The Kentucky transfer poured in double-digit points in every game in the NCAA Tournament. In particular, his 17 points and 8 rebounds helped propel Michigan past a pesky Florida State team in the Elite Eight.
Zavier Simpson’s play at point guard in the latter half of the season cannot be overstated as well. One of the biggest issues for Michigan on the offensive side of the ball was the lack of a true point guard. Simpson, benched in the early part of the season by Beilein, may not be a consistent scorer, but his recognition and court awareness are key for Michigan’s offense. Simpson has averaged 4.5 assists per game throughout the NCAA Tournament.
Michigan’s offense is predicated on ball movement and attacking the rim. Michigan, while they can hit the three ball, does not simply rely on the three-point shot to buoy their offense. Playmakers such as Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Matthews and Wagner work best when they can attack the rim and create plays both for themselves and their teammates off the dribble.
However, the offense is prone to stagnation and scoring droughts. Throughout the Tournament (and season), Michigan has fallen in love with either the three ball or mid-range jump shot. When these shots are not falling, Michigan will fall into a drought offensively. Michigan is also an incredibly poor free throw shooting team. They collectively only shoot 66.2 percent from the field and this could come back to haunt them down the stretch of a close game.
Defense is the primary reason Michigan is in the Final Four. The Wolverines erupted offensively throughout the Big Ten Tournament, torching opponents from the three-point line and working their defenses inside and out. However, the NCAA Tournament has been a different story. The Wolverines struggled from the field in three of their four games during the Tournament (sorry Texas A&M).
Michigan’s defense is predicated on aggressive, physical man-to-man on-ball pressure. Michigan does a great job of running teams off of the three-point line and forcing them into difficult looks from the field. No team has shot higher than 37 percent or 39 percent from three against the Wolverines throughout the Tournament thus far.
According to KenPom, Michigan comes in fourth place in adjusted defensive efficiency in the nation. Michigan’s versatility and length allow them to switch against on ball screens and effectively contest shots. This defensive pressure allows Michigan some room for error on the offensive end. When Michigan falls into a scoring drought, their defense is capable of keeping them in the game.
The thing about this Michigan team is that they love frustrating their opponents. They feed off of their opponents’ frustration and negative emotion. Abdur-Rahkman and Simpson do a masterful job of moving their feet and keeping their man in front of them. Most teams tend to occasionally fall asleep on defense, but not Michigan. They lock in from the minute the ball is tipped off and they hound their opponent until the final buzzer.
The only concern for Michigan on this end of the court is foul trouble. Wagner and Simpson have been prone to foul trouble in the past. Michigan is not the deepest team as Beilein usually prefers to play his starters, along with Duncan Robinson and Jordan Poole, most of the game. Simpson becomes too aggressive with his hands on defensive and Wagner can be overpowered in the post at times. It is critical that they avoid early fouls.
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: Abdur Rahkman is one of the vocal leaders of this team. He is arguably their best on-ball defender and rarely gets into foul trouble. But Michigan is at their best offensively when Abdur-Rahkman is hitting threes and making plays off of the dribble. In the Big Ten Tournament, Abdur-Rahkman averaged 15 points and shot at least 50 percent in every game.
The NCAA Tournament has been a different story though. Abdur-Rahkman has averaged 14 points, but his efficiency is way down. In Michigan’s four games, he is only shooting 35.9 percent from the field. Outside of his 24-point explosion against Texas A&M where he shot 57.1 percent from the field, Abdur-Rahkman has not hit a mark higher than 33.3 percent. If Michigan wants to win a title, they need Abdur-Rahkman to play more efficiently on offense.
Free Throw Shooting: As stated above, Michigan struggles at the line. Teams have targeted Simpson repeatedly down the stretch of games as he is only a 51.1 percent free throw shooter. Abdur-Rahkman has the highest FT percentage out of the starters and his is only at 74.8 percent.
Beilein usually has Duncan Robinson, a 90 percent free throw shooter, in the game in these situations. However, opposing teams will look to force Michigan’s hand by forcing the ball to one of their poor free throw shooters and fouling them instead. Michigan cannot afford to leave points on the table against any of the three remaining teams, as all three of them are capable of capitalizing on Michigan’s inability to convert at the line. As a result, Michigan needs to find some consistency at the line this weekend.
Michigan’s defense catapulted them into the Final Four this season. When Michigan’s outside shots are collectively falling, they are nearly impossible to defeat thanks to their stifling defense (see Michigan’s 99-72 demolition of Texas A&M as an example). Michigan is capable of defeating Loyola-Chicago with a stellar defensive effort but will require an efficient offensive game to compete with the likes of Villanova or Kansas if it reaches the title game.
Featured image by USA Today via Reuters.
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