DES MOINES, Iowa — As the Michigan locker room opened to the media Friday at Wells Fargo Arena, the players looked loose. By the end of the forty-minute session, Charles Matthews, Zavier Simpson, Jordan Poole, and others were discussing what were the lyrics to “The Drip Boy Anthem” – a song that first came to prominence during the 2017-18 season among the players.
Freshmen Brandon Johns and Adrien Nunez were seeing who could flip a bottle of Body Armor sports drink behind them. These were scenes from a team that felt in its element before film session and practicing as 2 seed Michigan faces 10 seed Florida Saturday afternoon (5:15 ET CBS.) with a trip to the Wolverines third consecutive Sweet 16 on the line.
“One of the things I pay a lot of attention to is laughter and fun at training tables,” John Beilein said of the light atmosphere in the locker room. “When I hear a lot of conversation I know we are feeling good, and I hear a lot of laughter right now. It’s not because we are taking anybody lightly, that is for sure, but this is a special time of the year. They should embrace March. These days are gone in no time, in a couple years they are just memories, and you have to make the most of it.”
The Wolverines felt so comfortable due to their confidence in their preparation that has served them all season and gotten the team to a 29-6 record and the NCAA Tournament round of 32.
“The unique thing about coach Beilein and our culture and how we set up our day-to-day basketball operations is when you have a two-day turnaround… You get two practices, you can’t have these big peaks and valleys and big changes,” said Michigan assistant Luke Yaklich. “You have to have a solid plan, and coach Beilein has put in a solid plan for us. Each day you’re trying to get a little bit better at something, and over the course of a six month season, by the time you get into March Madness… It prepares you for this stuff, our guys are always seeing something new, and they are always able to adjust.”
“We have smart basketball players who are able to transfer what happens in a hotel lobby, in a film session, or on a practice court, and then apply it to a game,” Yaklich continued.
As Michigan turns around, it faces a Gators team that has some similarities to how the Wolverines play. Mike White’s Gators team has a defense-first approach that has earned the Gators a ranking of 15th in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom. Michigan ranks second in the same metric. The Gators surrendered 61 points to Nevada Thursday night, Michigan gave up 55.
On the opposite side, both offenses don’t necessarily fire on all cylinders on a game to game basis. Michigan is now up to 19th in adjusted offensive efficiency, Florida sits at 59th.
Regardless, the Wolverines are keeping their approach the same as they look to punch their ticket to Anaheim. Freshman Ignas Brazdeikis echoed Yaklich.
“I feel like we are ready for sure,” Brazdeikis said. “The way we prepare all year long for games, it prepares us for moments like this. I feel like we don’t really change how we prepare for teams. It is the same kind of level of intensity. Now it is just about performing, every team has got to perform to move on.”
The coaches did have a chance to see film of the Gators prior to addressing the media. John Beilein did note some similarities between the two teams entering Saturday’s game.
“A little bit, I think we have similar styles,” Beilein said of the Gators. “They run a lot of ball screen action, they have a very good point guard. Two really good teams playing against each other and trying to move on to California.”
Second round games have been up and down affairs for Michigan the last two seasons. In 2017, the 7 seed Wolverines rode Moritz Wagner’s 26 points to a 73-69 win over 2 seed Louisville. Last year, 3 seed Michigan needed Jordan Poole’s miracle shot at the buzzer to beat 6 seed Houston 64-63 and avoid an early exit.
Zavier Simpson remarked the entire focus is team first right now. The junior passed Trey Burke on Michigan’s all-time assists list Thursday night for eighth all-time but had no desire to focus on individual accomplishments.
“If that’s what it takes for us to win, that is what I’ll do,” Simpson said of his ten assist performance against Montana. “I could care less about all the other stuff right now. The most important thing in March is to win and we did a great job of that yesterday and hopefully, we can continue to keep doing that.”
As for the pressure Michigan is feeling regarding Saturday’s game and advancing in the tournament, Beilein did not mince words.
“We’ve been really good sometimes and we haven’t been so good, especially when it came to playing for championships,” said the coach. “I hope we have learned a lot from that whether it was at Villanova, at Maryland, at Minnesota where if we want to stay in the championship hunt, we had to win those games. They’ve performed really well, way above average for what you expect when you only really have two guys that have played in those games thirty minutes.”
Michigan was plenty loose Friday, but the team knows it will have to lock in if the Wolverines are to be successful in their Gator hunt Saturday afternoon.
— Jay Sarkar (@ByJaySarkar) March 22, 2019