Late-season turnaround gets Michigan comfortably into NCAAs
This isn't Cinderella showing up at the ball, but there is some degree of comparison in the two stories. When the Wolverines were sitting at 1-6 in the Big Ten on Jan. 22, the suggestion that they belonged in the NCAA Tournament field would have been a fairy tale of its own.
The Wolverines, fielding the Big Ten's youngest team and the 19th-youngest in the nation, were picked in the preseason to finish at or near the basement of the conference, and they seemed to be playing down to those expectations.
But Michigan underwent a quickie metamorphosis in late January, and suddenly this immature and erratic team became dangerously energized and competitive. The Wolverines reeled off eight wins in their final 11 games of the season, twice beating a Michigan State team that had been in the top five nationally to start the season, and the preseason pick to win the Big Ten.
That streak put the Wolverines on the bubble and in the discussion, and however precarious their position might have been, they locked up an NCAA bid with a comeback win over Illinois in the Big Ten tournament and a strong showing against No. 1 Ohio State.
"I think we just did a good job of blocking out all the preseason rankings and all the negative talk that people were saying," junior forward Zack Novak said. "We were a young team with a lot of unproven players, so there really was no reason for people to think much of us. There were times this year where we easily could have quit, but we never did."
Never quitting earned the Wolverines an at-large bid as a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and a date with No. 9 Tennessee at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte as part of the West Region. The winner gets the chance to face the winner of No. 1 seed Duke and No. 16 seed Hampton.
Michigan coach John Beilein, a veteran of NCAA trips at four different schools, said his team finishing fourth in the Big Ten was all the evidence he needed that the Wolverines belonged in the NCAA field.
"I don't care about the seedings and all those things," Beilein said. "The only thing that I would say is, we finished fourth in a great conference. Forget the tiebreakers and all that stuff. I have never seen the Big Ten be this strong in my four years here, and we finished fourth."
--Michigan coach John Beilein brings a resume heavy with postseason experience to this year's NCAA Tournament. Beilein took the Wolverines to the NCAA two years ago and went 1-1. This will be his sixth trip to the NCAA as a head coach, having taken teams from Canisius, Richmond, West Virginia and Michigan to The Big Dance. Beilein has a 7-5 record in the Division I NCAA Tournament. He has also been to the NIT six times, compiling a 14-6 record in that event and a championship in 2007 at West Virginia.
--Before Michigan qualified for the 2008-09 NCAA Tournament field, there had been a drought of 12 years in which the program had failed to make the event.
--The rebuilding project at Michigan has been a significant one. Following last season's exit from the Big Ten tournament, the Wolverines had to replace nearly 70 percent of their scoring since G Manny Harris left early for the NBA and C/F Deshawn Sims graduated.
COACH: John Beilein, fourth year at Michigan, second NCAA appearance at Michigan
KEYS TO VICTORY: When Michigan gets the ball to the basket, usually via the slashing drives of sophomore PG Darius Morris and freshman G Tim Hardaway Jr., the Wolverines are very effective. Not only do Morris and Hardaway often finish at the rim, but they also have become adept at dumping the ball off inside for easy scores, or kicking it out to the 3-point arc, where junior F Zack Novak and junior G Stu Douglass do most of their damage. When the hybrid form of the inside/outside game is working, the Wolverines are very tough to beat.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's exciting, but I felt like it was something we deserved. I felt like we played well enough down the stretch to make the NCAA Tournament. Now that we're in, we have to go out and make things happen." -- Michigan junior F Zack Novak, on his team learning it was in the NCAA field.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
vs. Tennessee, March 18, NCAA Tournament second round
KEY MATCHUPS: The Volunteers are making a sixth straight trip to the NCAA. Tennessee is led by 6-foot-7 G Scotty Hopson, an all-SEC pick who averages 19.3 points per game. Hopson was part of a Tennessee team that bounced Ohio State from the Sweet Sixteen in last year's NCAA Tournament. Michigan likely will have freshman G Tim Hardaway Jr. make a run at guarding Hopson, whose length gives most guards problems. The Volunteers have other weapons, but controlling Hopson is no doubt the critical element for Michigan.
SCOUTING REPORT: Michigan has the potential to give teams plenty of problems in the NCAAs since it demonstrated its ability to create scoring opportunities during its two games in the Big Ten tournament. PG Darius Morris excels at getting to the basket. When the defense pinches down on him, Morris is adept at dishing the ball off to freshman C/F Jordan Morgan or kicking it out to the perimeter. Morris shoots right at 50 percent from the field and had seven games this season with 10 or more assists. Freshman G Tim Hardaway Jr. has come on in the last half of the season and is effective both slashing to the basket and hitting the 3-pointer. Junior F Zack Novak and junior G Stu Douglass are both proven threats beyond the arc. An added plus for Michigan has to be the experience of the man on the sideline, since John Beilein is making his 12th postseason appearance in his 19 years as a Division I head coach.
--Freshman G Tim Hardaway Jr. has started all 33 games this season for the Wolverines, and at 13.8 points per game through March 13, he had the second-highest scoring average for a freshman in the Big Ten.
--Junior F Zack Novak and junior G Stu Douglass are the only players on the Michigan roster with NCAA Tournament experience. The duo played in the 2008-09 NCAA as true freshmen.
--Junior F Zack Novak is the assumed leader on this team with no seniors. Novak has started every game this season, and at 6-foot-4, he is the Wolverines' leader in rebounding with about six per game.
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