Michigan is supposed to be a perimeter-oriented team, an offense that gets a significant portion of its points from behind the 3-point line on an annual basis. That held true in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, when the Wolverines made 11 second-half threes to beat Oklahoma State. When they get hot, they're always tough to beat.
On Sunday, however, the No. 7 seed Wolverines' 73-69 upset of No. 2 Louisville showcased why this Michigan team has suddenly become one of the most dangerous teams in all of college basketball: With the outside shooting cold against Louisville's excellent perimeter defense, the Wolverines leaned on their breakout sophomore bigs and found a different way to beat a quality opponent.
Moe Wagner and D.J. Wilson each averaged fewer than three points per game as freshmen in limited minutes one year ago. They've each become double-digit scorers this season, and now they're the two players most responsible for pushing Michigan from the second round to the Sweet 16.
After playing only 14 minutes against Oklahoma State, Wagner shot 11-for-14 from the field and scored 26 points on Sunday, dominating the Cardinals with a smooth game in the post and the ability to make plays from the outside. Wagner helped spark Michigan's second-half run, hitting a big 3-pointer to give Michigan a three-point lead with 6:44 left, then scoring on a nifty move in the lane for two a couple minutes later. With Michigan holding a four-point lead under two minutes to play, it patiently waited for a shot before Derrick Walton passed to Wagner on the wing and he pulled off a tremendous fake to get Mangok Mathiang off-balance before driving to the basket for two. Wagner's offensive involvement had been mixed in recent weeks, but on Sunday he looked like a versatile superstar who carried the Wolverines to another impressive win.
If Wagner set up the win, Wilson finished it off. Wilson scored 17 points, and, crucially, he calmly went 4-for-4 at the free-throw line in the final 17 seconds to secure the victory despite a couple big baskets from Donovan Mitchell to keep Louisville -- which also had some success pressing Michigan and forcing turnovers late -- within striking distance.
In the win over Oklahoma State, Michigan shot 16-for-29 from 3-point range, getting six makes from Walton. In the Big Ten tournament final, Walton hit four 3-pointers. Against Louisville, Walton went just 3-for-13 from the field and 2-for-7 from beyond the arc, although he hit a huge step-back 3-pointer with 5:55 left, as part of the Michigan run that put it in control of the game.
Michigan's offense has come alive in the 2nd half in its 2 NCAA Tournament games, helping them overcome an 8-point halftime deficit today. pic.twitter.com/Zf2tt32XpD- ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 19, 2017
Louisville, meanwhile, missed opportunities, shooting just 5-for-20 from the perimeter and also missing some shots around the basket. Mitchell scored 19, but fellow guard Quentin Snider was 0-for-9 from the field, and Louisville's inability to contain Wagner and Wilson caused it to blow a lead after leading by eight at halftime with the help of some early fireworks:
Michigan thus marches on as one of the biggest stories of March Madness. The Wolverines were 14-9 overall and 4-6 in the Big Ten when they lost to Ohio State on Feb. 4, but they're 12-2 since then, once again morphing into one of the nation's most potent offenses under offensive guru John Beilein. They made an incredible run to the Big Ten tournament championship after arriving late because of a runway plane accident, and now they have won two of the NCAA Tournament's most entertaining games to punch a ticket to the Sweet 16, with a win that felt extra sweet because the Wolverines lost to Rick Pitino and Louisville in the national championship game in 2013.
Not too long ago, nobody would have possibly expected Michigan to be a Final Four threat. Now, in addition to being flat-out entertaining, it's playing some of the tournament's best basketball, a versatile offensive team finding different ways to win.
Written off not too long ago, Michigan has evolved into the team nobody wants to play but everybody wants to watch.