Niyo: Howard, Wolverines right where they belong in another NCAA run

Michigan’s rout of Florida State was a start-to-finish display of cohesiveness.        …

Niyo: Howard, Wolverines right where they belong in another NCAA run 1

They’ve been there so long they don’t want to go home.

And having taken up residency in another state, after 18 days and nights in a hotel in downtown Indianapolis, Michigan made it clear Sunday evening it’s in no mood to pack.

As senior guard Eli Brooks explained the other day, “You don’t want to go back home, and for good reasons.”

But the reason they won’t — not for another 48 hours, at least, with an Elite Eight matchup against No. 11 seed UCLA set for Tuesday — is because they’ve found a way to make themselves comfortable, no matter their surroundings.

Sunday’s 76-58 rout of Florida State in an NCAA East Region semifinal at Bankers Life Fieldhouse was just more evidence of that, a wire-to-wire display of connectivity that makes you wonder just what it’ll take to move the top-seeded Wolverines out of this bracket and back to their own beds.

“It wouldn’t surprise me at all,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said, “to see them standing there on Monday night with their finger up saying they’re No. 1.”

That’d still be a surprise to most of us, given what we’ve seen from an undefeated Gonzaga this season. But to his point, Michigan has shed whatever sense of vulnerability it seemed to carry into this NCAA Tournament two weeks ago, when it was still absorbing the news it’d be playing without senior Isaiah Livers the rest of the way.

And if there’s a sense of place with this Michigan team, now that it has settled in nearly 300 miles from home, there’s also a sense of self-awareness that’s obvious. Juwan Howard’s Wolverines know where they are, but they also know who they are and what they are.

That’s something we saw for much of the Wolverines’ regular-season run to a Big Ten title, even after a midseason shutdown gave some of their critics pause. But it’s something we’ve seen amplified now that they’ve been hobbled here in March, with a stress fracture to Livers’ right foot ending his season and, so most of us figured, Michigan’s national title hopes.

For subscribers: Wojo: Wolverines reaching new heights, and everything is possible now

Instead, we’re seeing even more growth now, whether it’s the confidence from junior Brandon Johns Jr., who keeps stacking together solid starts, each one more impressive than the last. Or the resolve of point guard Mike Smith, who rebounded from a difficult night against LSU and was in control from start to finish against another opponent that dwarfed him physically.

It’s the killer instinct from Franz Wagner, who’ll be a lottery pick by the time this run is done, knifing through the lane for another swooping layup to finish off an opponent. But it’s also the moxie Chaundee Brown brings as a super-sub off the bench, and the determination of freshman center Hunter Dickinson fending off double teams.

It’s what you see when Eli Brooks picks up a teammate by drawing a charge in the lane just as Florida State seemed like it might find a spark. But it’s also what you get when Johns runs a high-low post game with Austin Davis to perfection, just after Smith crashes through the forest for a three-point play, sending a five-point lead back to double digits. 

And above all else Sunday, it was a reminder that what we might see as a bad matchup for Michigan isn’t always what we’ll get. In fact, it rarely is with this team. The way Michigan neutralized Florida State’s swarming defense and cut the Seminoles — the tallest team in the country, according to KenPom — down to size was something else, all right.

“Yeah, we heard it all week,” Howard said of Florida State’s uncommon length, nodding a bit sarcastically. “Yeah, sure did. But we did a really good job of preparing for it.”

And then they did an even better job dismantling it. Michigan patiently broke the press, and then relentlessly attacked Florida State’s closeouts, passing up the sort of pitfalls most other teams find against Hamilton’s crew. In the second half alone, the Wolverines assisted on 15 of 18 made baskets, while shooting nearly 70% from the field.

For Michigan, this was its fourth straight Sweet 16 appearance, a streak only Gonzaga (six) can top at the moment. And now they’ll be playing in the Elite Eight for the fourth time in the last eight NCAA tournaments, the kind of run that turns a program’s blood blue. Wagner laughed at the end of his press conference when asked if it was accurate to call Michigan a basketball school now. (“I’m very confident in the football team — it’s going to surprise a lot of people next year,” he smiled.)

For Howard, this is his fourth trip to the Elite Eight, too, though the first three came as player during the Fab Five era. But you can hardly tell this is his first postseason go-around as a college coach, mostly because he doesn’t look the least bit flustered, and neither does his team.

More coverage: Wolverines capitalize on Seminoles turnovers in 76-58 Sweet 16 romp

A matchup with one of his mentors — Howard sought out Hamilton, his former NBA coach, for advice when he took the Michigan job — felt like a coaching clinic in reverse Sunday. And if you want to credit the Wolverines’ experienced lineup for some of that, you’ll get no argument here.

But you might from Howard’s players, if only because they know the scouting report was on point from the moment the UM staff presented it to them this week.

“I mean, we basically knew how they were going to play us all game,” Wagner said, talking specifically about the Seminoles’ plans to switch every ball screen and front the post throughout. “So we kind of knew what to expect and did that in practice.”

And then they did it in the game, outscoring Florida State 50-28 in the paint, committing just nine turnovers and leaving Hamilton beyond impressed. With their spacing, their patience and their execution.

“There’s no doubt that this team, from an execution standpoint, from a decision-making standpoint, they are playing to who they are,” he said of the Wolverines. “I said prior to the game that the team who would win this game would be the team who was the best version of who they were, and I think they were the best version of Michigan tonight.”

A version, by the way, that seems like it’s here to stay.

Twitter: @johnniyo

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