DES MOINES, Iowa ? The beauty of the NCAA tournament is that every matchup features intrigue, whether it be on or off the court. For two seed Michigan and ten seed Florida, their meeting in a second-round West Regional game was the teams first meeting since a 2013 Elite Eight meeting that saw Michigan trap the Gators early and earn a 79-59 win.
Saturday in Des Moines, John Beilein faced off against his former West Virginia point guard Darris Nichols in the tournament for the second time (Nichols was on the Wofford staff in 2014.) He?s now an assistant coach at Florida. Ignas Brazdeikis saw fellow Canada national team member and friend Andrew Nembhard start at point guard for the Gators.
Throw in Michigan facing Florida in basketball or football for the fifth time in six years, the similar defensive-oriented playing styles of both teams, and you had a recipe for a slugfest to see who would punch their ticket to the Sweet 16 and earn a trip to Anaheim. The Wolverines came out on top 64-49 in a gritty effort to clinch a third straight trip to the second weekend of the tournament.
“Not a lot of people get to experience this in their entire college life and I’m gonna experience it during my first year,” said Ignas Brazdeikis (five points, three rebounds) “That was my first time experiencing that, just celebrating the moment. I feel like this was the first time we celebrated a win like that this year,” Brazdeikis said of Michigan’s now annual tradition of dousing John Beilein after a Second Round win.
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 23, 2019
For two teams that prioritize defense, the early going featured a flurry of offense. Dunks, banked threes, Jordan Poole getting fouled on a three-pointer that was nothing but net. The teams traded baskets early and then an ugly, but familiar sight reared its head. Michigan went on one of its offensive droughts. After the Wolverines jumped out to a 15-6 lead, the Gators went on a 15-6 run of their own. Zavier Simpson spent the early part of the first half conducting Michigan?s offense like a symphony, but that beautiful music turned into misses and contested attempts as Florida?s zone stymied the Wolverines offense for a scoring drought from the field that lasted over four minutes with only one Charles Matthews free throw to keep Michigan from going scoreless.
“It goes with the basics,” said Isaiah Livers after the game. “They just kept switching their defense on us and we had to have Zaiver, he has the ball like ninety percent of the time. He did very well reading the floor and getting us into our sets.”
The Wolverines needed a spark, so it turned they turned to their resident acrobat: Zavier Simpson.
With just over six minutes left in the first half, Simpson delivered a driving layup off a finger roll that would help the Wolverines recalibrate before going into halftime up four. Simpson, Charles Matthews, and Livers combined to score Michigan?s final 11 points of the opening period, allowing the Wolverines to get to the locker room with a 32-28 advantage. Michigan’s defense also played a pivotal role in holding Florida to five points in the final 6:23 of the first half. Jon Teske showed his versatility defending Florida point guard Andrew Nembhard in the last minute of the first half then collecting Noah Locke’s desperation shot as the shot clock expired.
“The coaches and my teammates have trust in me to do that,” Teske said of the vital defensive stop. “I’m able to move my feet, use my length. I knew he was gonna try to shoot it. Coach always said don’t let them shoot a three, make them get inside the paint.”
In a game where possessions became more valuable as the clock ticked down, Michigan wanted to find its rhythm. John Beilein’s metronome was set to get defensive stops and play unselfish basketball in the offensive end to keep Michigan’s machine humming until the final whistle.
“You’re eventually gonna score points, you gotta just keep getting stops,” Beilein said of the scoring drought. “That’s what we were elite at in the second half, I mean that was incredible defense. Bigger stat of the day, they (Florida) made two fouls shots.”
The Wolverines attempted to set the tone right out of the gate in the second half. Ignas Brazdeikis, who sat during the later stages of the first half with two fouls, hit a three on Michigan’s first shot attempt. After a Florida miss, Simpson found Teske in the paint for an easy layup. Poole added a strong drive to the rim and got fouled by Kevarrius Hayes to turn it into a three-point play. He then added a three-pointer for good measure.
Michigan’s 11-0 run to open the half created a 15 point lead but like the first half, led to an offensive drought. Michigan led 43-28 less than three minutes into the final period but went only to score just three points over the following six minutes with Poole converting three free throw attempts.
“These dudes are connected,” said Michigan assistant Saddi Washington. “At this point in the year, Coach (Beilein) talks a lot about having a player led team and I think our guys understand what it takes to perform at a high level.”
Eli Brooks was the catalyst for getting Michigan back into rhythm. He converted a driving layup to extend the lead to 48-39, and the Wolverines built from there. The lead never reached consistent double-digits, but Michigan did enough of the little things right to keep its advantage. For a team that puts so much emphasis on the fundamentals, finishing plays, free throws and hustle were what kept Michigan in front for the entire second half en route to the win. Isaiah Livers sealed it with a dunk that sent Michigan fans into a fervor as it pushed the Wolverines lead to 13.
“I seen?uh I think we got a steal or a quick rebound, X is always looking ahead on the court,” Livers said of the play. “So if you run, he is gonna find you. He threw this long old bounce pass I didn’t think he was gonna throw, but I also seen Jordan but I didn’t want to mess up the play and get an alley oop. Only one thing to do and that was go up there and dunk it.”
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 23, 2019
The familiarity will continue into next week for Michigan. The Wolverines are onto the Sweet 16 for the third time in as many years and are going back to California. One year after competing in the West Regional at Staples Center in Los Angeles, the Wolverines will play their Sweet 16 and possible Elite Eight game at the Honda Center in Anaheim just 30 miles southeast of where the Wolverines claimed a Final Four berth one year ago.
“If we don’t win a National Championship pretty soon, somebody will probably fire me saying you can’t win it” Beilein joked. “It’s all relative and if we continue to just have good kids that want to grow in basketball, have guys who don’t have a lot of maintenance off the court with, it shows you can do a lot of great things.”
“Playing Montana again, going back to California, a lot of Michigan fans out there. We can’t wait to go out there and play our game.”
Michigan will now get a few days to rest and recalibrate before the team continues its journey through the tourney, but as the players stated leading up to the Florida game: having confidence in their preparation means the Wolverines will be ready to take on all comers as their path to the Final Four becomes clearer.