| The Detroit News
Indianapolis — They won’t get caught peeking, because that’s how you get in trouble this time of year.
But Michigan isn’t exactly peaking, either. And that can be a problem as well, especially when you’re carrying the weight of expectations as a No. 1 seed into the NCAA Tournament, not to mention the weighty implications of a serious injury to one of your team’s top scorers.
Still, the way Juwan Howard looks at it, these Wolverines already have gone “far and beyond some of the expectations” others set for them at the start of this season. They were picked to finish sixth in the Big Ten and ended up winning the league title. They started the season unranked in the coaches’ Top 25 poll, yet they’ll begin the postseason as the fourth overall seed in the field of 68 that was unveiled by the NCAA selection committee Sunday night.
“So am I proud of our team? Damn right I am,” Howard said this weekend in Indianapolis, where Michigan lost in the Big Ten tournament semifinals then hunkered down in a hotel to await its final March-ing orders. “I love this group.”
And there are at least a couple things to like about the path that awaits the Wolverines as they try to make a third Final Four trip in the last decade, chasing the school’s first NCAA title since 1989.
For starters, they held on to the No. 1 seed that everyone figured they’d locked up by winning the Big Ten, which landed nine teams in the tournament field.
Michigan did so despite some crushing injury news over the weekend, with Isaiah Livers ruled out “indefinitely” after being diagnosed with a stress fracture in his right foot following Michigan’s Big Ten quarterfinal win over Maryland. They’ve also lost three of their last five games, though two of those came against top-10 teams — Illinois and Ohio State — that met in Sunday’s Big Ten tournament final.
But while that left Michigan behind Gonzaga, Baylor and Illinois, the Wolverines still got the top-line billing over SEC champ Alabama, which got the No. 2 seed in the same East Region as Michigan. That means Juwan Howard avoids an opener against Rick Pitino and Iona, as well as a possible second-round matchup with a surging, under-seeded team like Connecticut. Or another shouting match with Maryland, for that matter.
Getting to the second week of the tournament won’t be a cakewalk, however. Not with a possible second-round date with LSU, which went 18-9, nearly upset Alabama in Sunday’s SEC tournament final and boasts one of the nation’s most efficient offenses.
And once there, the East Region looks a little more challenging than the others. Michigan’s Sweet 16 opponent, if seeds hold, would be a Florida State team that shoots the 3 well and has a potential NBA lottery pick in Scottie Barnes coming on strong. On the other side of the bracket, Nate Oats’ Alabama team defends like crazy and has lost just once in the last month, while No. 3 seed Texas, which just won the Big 12 tournament, has an athletic frontcourt that can cause problems, even for Michigan.
Liking its chances
All that said, Michigan still views itself as the favorite.
“Every single player in that locker room fully believes that we are the best team in the country and that we will win the national championship,” freshman center Hunter Dickinson said. “I think the confidence starts with Coach Howard.”
But it certainly doesn’t end there. Michigan won the regular-season title in the best league in the country, and did so by beating all but one of the other 13 teams in the conference. That lone exception — Illinois — just won the Big Ten tournament to leapfrog the Wolverines on the top-seed line.
Michigan plays some of the stingiest defense in the country, is a bit matchup-proof thanks to the combination of Dickinson’s post play and multiple three-point threats, and Howard’s lineup also is one of the more experienced groups in the tournament.
Still, maybe the best news for the Wolverines is they won’t play until Saturday. Because that gives Howard and his staff more time to figure out how best to account for the loss of Livers, their veteran leader whose versatility helped make this an elite offensive team.
Howard, the former Fab Five star who’ll be making his NCAA tourney debut as a coach, actually joked this weekend about finding a last-minute replacement.
“Well, I’ve got one year left of eligibility,” he said. “I’m gonna file it (with) the NCAA. I’m gonna hurry up and get in shape these next few days.”
Really, though, Michigan’s coaches need to spend the next few days rethinking their starting lineup and rotation.
They went with junior Brandon Johns as Livers’ replacement Saturday against Ohio State and he acquitted himself fairly well. But the better answer might be to insert Chaundee Brown in that spot, as his shooting threat could help open things up for Dickinson inside. It sure seemed to in the second half of Friday’s win over Maryland, and Johns still seems most effective in the minutes he gets as the backup center.
When asked about that, Howard politely declined to get into any specifics, lest he help a future opponent with its advance scouting.
“I will tell you this, though: Every player is gonna get a shot at the opportunity of playing,” he said. “And the guys that do play, I trust that they’re gonna do whatever they can to help the team win.”
It takes six wins from here, of course. And there won’t be many predicting that kind of run from Michigan now that Livers is in a walking boot. But don’t tell that to him, or his teammates, right now.
“Because we’re competitors,” Dickinson said. “If you go into the NCAA tournament thinking that you’re gonna lose, then you’re going to lose.”
And clearly, that’s not what they’re looking to do here, at all.
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