This was supposed to be a tall task, the tallest one yet. And the Wolverines shrugged and did what they do, chopping it down to size and brushing it off.
Everything is growing before our eyes — the confidence, the roles, the possibilities. Michigan was part-masterful and part-menacing Sunday night, again displaying its completeness and competitiveness. Florida State came in as the tallest team in the country, a dangerous four seed and popular upset pick. That notion lasted about 10 minutes, or about as long as it took the Seminoles to catch a whiff of Michigan’s ramped-up defense.
The Wolverines are rolling to the Elite Eight after dismantling Florida State 76-58, snapping the spirit of what was billed as a tough-minded team. The Seminoles were a mess, turning the ball over at every turn, and the Wolverines never stopped messing with them. And now, another crazy twist: Michigan faces 11th-seeded UCLA on Tuesday night (9:57 p.m., TBS) for a spot in the Final Four, after the Bruins stunned No. 2 Alabama.
Michigan doesn’t let up, a direct reflection of its coach. In just his second season, Juwan Howard has pieced together a relentless power, even with a big piece missing. Howard instills confidence in so many players, they’re ready to deliver when needed. Brandon Johns Jr., who replaced the injured Isaiah Livers in the starting lineup, was forceful again, attacking the basket for 14 points. So was his fellow big man, 7-footer Hunter Dickinson.
However tall Florida State looked, Michigan looked taller, and the Seminoles played smaller. For all Florida State’s celebrated height, Michigan won the rebounding battle and attacked the offensive glass.
“We heard it all week,” Howard said of Florida State’s height statistic. “Yep, we sure did. Did a really good job of preparing for it.”
Preparation with a purpose, and a motivational chip. That’s why Howard is in the running for all sorts of Coach of the Year awards. Through a dominating Big Ten season, and now through three Tournament games, the Wolverines have found answers — strategically and personnel-wise — to whatever issues appear.
When Florida State sliced the deficit to five early in the second half, here came super-swift point guard Mike Smith racing down the floor for a three-point play, and the Seminoles never threatened again. Smith is 5-11, going against guards 6-5, 6-4 and 6-6. Last week against LSU’s tall guards, he struggled. Against FSU, he kept the ball moving expertly.
The way the Wolverines are rolling right now, they seemingly can play any way they need to play, beat you up around the basket or beat you down the floor on a fastbreak. Last game, Franz Wagner was tentative. This game, he was tenacious, driving and setting up others. He led Michigan with 10 rebounds and five assists.
“This year has been extremely hard on everybody, especially mentally, and that makes this (Elite Eight appearance) pretty cool,” Wagner said. “We’ve seen all season, we have multiple guys that can score, great shooters from the outside. I always try to attack the basket and be aggressive, but that only happens when we move the ball and don’t dribble too much.”
This time of year, you never know where the next obstacle lurks. But the Wolverines are back to looking like the Big Ten champs and a No. 1 seed. Who knew that when their star player was felled, they’d just keep rotating in guys with something to prove? I have a feeling Howard knew. Deep down, Johns knew, saying his confidence is at “an all-time high.”
The Wolverines share the ball and the responsibilities, and you still can’t guess who will lead them on any given night. In their victory over LSU, Chaundee Brown Jr. and Eli Brooks each scored 21. In this one, Johns and Wagner were more assertive. The poor Seminoles couldn’t possibly know where to look or what was next.
Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton is one of Howard’s cherished mentors, and you can see similar principles they believe in. The difference here, though, was Michigan had more options, more ways to play. The Seminoles are one of the top 3-point shooting teams in the country and they kept heaving them, but hit only five of 20, while committing 14 turnovers.
“I’m so proud of our team, how they competed from start to finish,” Howard said. “We’re grinding and we’re doing it collectively, and it’s beautiful just to see the development that’s happening before our eyes. Effort, energy and toughness, our guys came with that mindset.”
Livers still sits on the bench, his right foot in a walking boot, but his role is different now — player-coach, cheerleader, motivator. As unfortunate as it is for him, as debilitating as it could be for the team, the Wolverines have adjusted to the point they rarely bring it up.
A reporter asked Howard how his team handled such a blow late in the season. He looked up, slightly puzzled.
“What blow are you speaking of?” Howard said. “We don’t make excuses at Michigan. We feel so sorry for Isaiah, and any time a player goes down, your heart breaks. We lift him up and keep his spirits up. He’s been amazing on the sideline, like another coach for us. It’s great to see other guys have stepped up.”
That’s the theme Howard always hammers. The Wolverines have talent, make no mistake. But they beat teams with poise and persistence, superbly coached and inspired.
You want a symbol of their spirit and cohesiveness? Take a look at their last basket of the game. They were up 20 when freshman reserve Jace Howard, the coach’s son, scored and drew a foul. The jubilation on the bench made it look like a game-winner. The fist pump from Juwan Howard meant even more.
Through a coach’s eyes and a father’s eyes, it was the best sight imaginable.
“It’s our culture, man, our guys do an amazing job of enjoying each other’s success,” Juwan Howard said. “There’s a brotherhood that’s special, it’s not just a word. Those guys really believe it and buy into it because that’s the care and love they have for each other. Whether it was Jace or (fellow reserve) Zeb Jackson, you’d have seen the same exact excitement.”
As quickly as they can dial it up, they can dial it down and get ready for the next game, one step at a time. The steps keep getting higher, and as they do, these Wolverines look more and more ready to keep climbing.
Our special thanks to:detroitnews.com