Wojo: Prayers are good, but better play needed for UM
Sometimes it takes one prayer, and sometimes it takes a few. Just ask Michigan’s Jordan Poole, or Loyola-Chicago’s suddenly famous Sister Jean, each capable of throwing up momentous prayers.
Eventually, it takes plays and players. For all the giddy upsets and buzzer-beaters in the NCAA Tournament, for all the hyperventilating about the hyphenated heroes from Maryland-Baltimore County and Illinois- Chicago, there are plenty of bluebloods still alive in the Sweet 16.
Just as many 11 seeds (Syracuse, Loyola-Chicago) remain as No. 1 seeds (Villanova, Kansas). Two fashionable favorites — Arizona, Michigan State — are gone. Defending champ North Carolina is gone. Overall top seed Virginia is gone, stunned by 16 seed UMBC. But ample glitter remains, and the national champion likely will come from this upper-crust six (in order): Villanova, Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, Gonzaga, Michigan.
Can the Wolverines actually win it all? Yep, they can. They just can’t expect to ride good fortune the whole way. At No. 3, they’re the highest seed remaining in the West, and despite sluggish offense their first two games, are a slight favorite to beat Texas A&M.
Michigan stared into the abyss and survived to talk about it, and based on its brush with near-certain defeat, probably is the most relieved team left. It doesn’t matter whether it’s luck or execution because this is how the Tournament works — perceptions and fates twist randomly. Sitting a mere 3.6 seconds from a crushing loss to Houston, Michigan got the miracle shot from Poole and now is a Final Four favorite.
“When you feel we haven’t played at our best, and we still won, there’s always a guilt that goes through me — well, did we really deserve to do that?” John Beilein said. “All 16 teams appreciate the opportunity and all believe they can win it. Somebody’s gonna win four in a row. I’ve said all the time, why not us?”
The Wolverines didn’t play well offensively in victories over Montana and Houston, but don’t downgrade their stifling defense. Oh, and don’t overlook their next opponent. The Aggies are another example of shifting fortunes. On Dec. 21 they were 11-1 and ranked fifth in the country. After suspensions and injuries, they were 17-11 and in danger of missing the Tournament.
You sometimes forget where and how these runs began, or are destined to end. Second-seeded Purdue would be a much-stronger possibility if it didn’t lose 7-footer Isaac Haas to a broken elbow in its opening game.
Kentucky fell out of the rankings for several weeks, and on selection Sunday John Calipari whined (predictably) about a tough draw for his No. 5-seeded team. Now, the Wildcats have an astonishingly clear path in the South, facing No. 9 Kansas State, then the winner of No. 7 Nevada and No. 11 Loyola-Chicago. That’s not just unusual, it’s historic, the first time all top-four seeds in a region failed to reach the Sweet 16.
The left side of the bracket is virtual rubble, with two standing as the headliners — Kentucky and Michigan. The Wolverines’ path could be considerably harder, with No. 4 Gonzaga in the way. Somehow, Mark Few’s Bulldogs still get overlooked, despite being national runners-up last year, despite reaching the Sweet 16 for the fourth straight year, and despite boasting the best offense (84.2 ppg) in their history. Fewer and Fewer reasons to discount Gonzaga, indeed.
That’s the team I had eliminating Michigan in the Elite Eight before the Tournament, and there’s not a compelling reason to switch yet, although Gonzaga did struggle in its first two victories. There’s certainly no reason yet to flip on my predicted champ, Villanova, which won twice by an average margin of 24.5 and has a fearless leader in Jalen Brunson.
One shot might get you a victory or two — Loyola-Chicago won twice on buzzer-beaters, launching the legend of 98-year-old team chaplain Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt — but it won’t get you four more victories. The Wolverines know they’ll have to shoot much, much better (13-for-46 on 3-pointers), and the odds are, they will. The facts are, they must against a fierce Texas A&M defense with an imposing front line of 6-10 Tyler Davis and 6-10 Robert Williams.
Moe Wagner averaged only 8.5 points in two games, and surely will have to crank it up from the outside. Perhaps the Wolverines felt the rust of an 11-day layoff, or the pressure of facing teams they were supposed to beat, but they scuffled. Several days after the escape, they sounded like they’d seen a ghost, and were especially appreciative of new life granted by Poole’s improbable shot.
“I’m not sure how long it’ll last, but it still shocks a lot of us,” guard Zavier Simpson said. “We’re just trying to survive by all means necessary. I wouldn’t say the offense isn’t flowing, but we have to hit some shots we usually make.”
The Wolverines felt the nasty shock at this time last year in the Sweet 16, losing to Oregon, 69-68, when Derrick Walton Jr,’s jumper fell short. But the program’s basketball blood keeps getting Bluer under Beilein, in the Sweet 16 for the fourth time six seasons. His tournament record in that span (counting Big Ten and NCAA) is 27-8, and he’s officially an underrated March force.
That’s not just done with prayers, but with players. It’s true of all the big-time programs and their big-time stars, from Duke (Margin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr.) to Villanova (Brunson, Mikal Bridges) to Kentucky (Kevin Knox) to Kansas (Devonte Graham). The early hopes and prayers were fun, but they generally don’t last. Years of Tournament play have shown, and the Wolverines surely know, reprieves are a one-shot deal, and cannot be squandered.