ANAHEIM, Calif. — As Michigan (30-6) took the court at Honda Center Wednesday to practice before facing Texas Tech (28-6) in an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 game, the Wolverines spoke of the similarities that they see between themselves and the Red Raiders. They also showed mutual respect from the head coaches down.
“All I know is he can really coach,” John Beilein said of Texas Tech coach Chris Beard. “He came up at Texas Tech perhaps with Bobby Knight. I was at several head coaching spots before I got a job, I think he’s been a head coach at a junior college right? Then his position at Arkansas Little Rock and then head coach here. I have a lot of respect for what he has done and it’s amazing.”
Beard echoed similar thoughts of his Michigan counterpart.
“With Coach (Beilein), he’s somebody I have always looked up to personally,” Beard told reporters. “I’m proud of my background in small college basketball where it be NAIA or Division II, or Junior College and Coach is somebody we all look up to in coaching because of his experience and success at different levels.”
Akin to Beilein’s path of Erie Community College, Le Moyne, Canisius, Richmond, West Virginia and Michigan, Beard spent two years coaching JuCo ball before serving as an assistant coach at Texas Tech for ten seasons before returning to being a head coach at smaller schools. The two coaches respective journeys have been unconventional, yet remarkably similar as they meet in the Sweet 16.
The Wolverines and Red Raiders players both had praise for one another. “We think Michigan is probably the best team we played all year, up there with Duke and teams in the Big 12, Kansas, Kansas State,” said Tech guard Matt Mooney. “We heard it’s the number one and number two defenses going at it. So they got a really good mix of guys, length, athleticism, size. So they’re a really good team and well-balanced.
“They’re a great team,” said Ignas Brazdeikis. “I feel like they do well converting their defense to offense and that’s definitely a strength for them. They’ve got a lot of different threats on the offensive end, it’s definitely going to be a great matchup for us to defend and play our game.
Michigan and Texas Tech are mirror images in their defense-first approach led by coaches that are both very regimented in their methods. Both teams are also coming in relatively hot. The Red Raiders have won 11 of their last 12, Michigan has won eight of its last 11 with those three losses coming to Michigan State.
“When I think of Michigan, I think of discipline,” said Beard. “They don’t beat themselves, they are a low turnover team. I think they have the fewest of anybody this year, 9 a game. That means you’re not beating yourself.”
The Wolverines will need that discipline, as well as some three-point shooting if they are to have a chance Thursday night of advancing to the Elite Eight. As a team, Michigan will need to lean on its offense outshining Texas Tech’s, and that responsibility will fall on Charles Matthews. The Wolverines best on-ball defender has to slow down Jarrett Culver, a potential NBA lottery pick who leads the Red Raiders in points, assists, and rebounds. If Michigan can slow down Culver, it will have a good shot at returning to the West Regional Final to face either Gonzaga or Florida State.
“I think we just have to keep playing the way we are,” said Jon Teske. “Defensively, we know we can hold opponents and limit their shots. Offensively, as long as we’re knocking down shots and taking care of the ball, we’re tough to beat.”
It would be remiss to not point out the uncanny similarities to Michigan’s current situation when compared to one year ago. Michigan entered its 2018 Sweet 16 game in Los Angeles going against 7 seed Texas A&M. The Aggies came in with a strong defense that Michigan obliterated by knocking down 14 three-pointers on the way to a 99-72 win. Expecting a similar scoreline Thursday would be foolish, but Michigan has shown its offense can catch fire over the past few games. Much like last year, there will likely be a strong Michigan presence in the crowd too. Beilein commented on the similarities of the Sweet 16 scenarios.
“We knew we were coming out here and when I heard the news who we were playing and it was Texas Tech instead of Texas A&M, but the other two same teams. I said whatever we did, let’s do the same thing. So it is unusual to go to the west coast at a similar site two years in a row, but we don’t travel well. We don’t need to travel well because we have so many alums in California. We took over the Staples Center and I’m sure there will be a lot of alums there tomorrow.”
Thursday’s game won’t be a gimme by any means for Michigan, but if the Wolverines continue to show the form they did in Des Moines against Texas Tech, they very well could keep on dancing into the weekend.