John Beilein’s crew rolled through the Big Ten tournament at the beginning of March and many analysts saw that as a harbinger of a potential deep run once the NCAA Tournament came around. While the offense wasn’t nearly as prolific as it was during that three-day run in NYC, the Wolverines made those prognosticators look positively Nostradamus-like by pushing their way to the Final Four.
Despite how good they look now, the expectations for this season weren’t Final Four high when it began. Let’s take a look back at Michigan’s journey to San Antonio.
The Wolverines were picked to finish in a tie for fifth place with Maryland in the conference’s preseason media poll. Michigan had graduated three seniors from the 2016-17 squad, including their two highest scorers, and junior forward D.J. Wilson surprised many by declaring for the NBA Draft. Beilein’s team did return sophomore forward Moritz Wagner and junior forward Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, while senior Duncan Robinson was granted another year of eligibility.
In addition, the Wolverines added Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews and freshman guard Jordan Poole. Still, it was a largely unproven team, so expectations were lowered entering the season.
December 9th & 12th, 2017
The Wolverines began the season beating the teams you’d expect them to (North Florida, Central Michigan, VCU, etc.) and losing to teams you might expect as well (UNC, LSU, Ohio State). So, through the first month and change, the season was largely what people may have expected from this team. They entered the second week of December with a 7-3 record and facing a pair of high-profile out of conference games against UCLA and Texas.
A hard-fought overtime win over the Bruins (78-69) and a defensive battle against the Longhorns (59-52) later, and you started to wonder just what this Michigan team could accomplish. In these two contests you saw different players take the lead scoring role. Against UCLA it was Wagner (23) and Matthews (20). Against Texas, Abdur-Rahkman stepped up, scoring 17 points and adding 10 rebounds. The varied attack offered some insight into how the offense could look if everyone clicked at the same time.
January 13th, 2018
Following the UCLA and Texas games, the Wolverines rattled off five straight wins before welcoming #5 Purdue into the Crisler Center. They came up just short, 70-69, in what was just their fourth loss of the season. Next up, a date with the rival Spartans in East Lansing. Michigan State was ranked fourth entering the game meaning back-to-back games against Top 5 opponents for the Wolverines.
Wagner came out firing, hitting 3-of-4 three point attempts en route to a game-high 27 points, while Zavier Simpson (16), Abdur-Rahkman (14) and Matthews (10) all scored in double figures. On the defensive end, the Wolverines were sharp, allowing Sparty to hit just 3-of-13 (23%) from beyond the arc and turning them over 17 times. Michigan took an 82-72 win over their rival on the road, earning their biggest win of the season to that point.
January 25th, 2018
After the Michigan State win, the next three games were a bit up-and-down, with wins over Maryland and Rutgers and a 20-point loss to Nebraska. After the Rutgers win, the Wolverines faced a road trip to West Lafayette for another battle with the Boilermakers. Once again, it was a tightly contested affair, with the Wolverines coming up short, 92-88. The biggest problem was the inability to slow down Vince Edwards and Isaac Haas who combined for 54 of the 92 points. Despite the loss, the Wolverines bounced right back with wins over Northwestern and Minnesota before a loss on the road to the Wildcats. But, little did we know at the time that the loss to Northwestern in Evanston would be the last loss Beilein’s crew would suffer.
February 11th-March 4th, 2018
The Wolverines streak started with a 83-72 win over Wisconsin on the road. From there, they rolled off wins over Iowa, #8 Ohio State, Penn State and Maryland to end the regular season earning the 5th-seed in the Big Ten tournament which was being held in Madison Square Garden in New York City for the first time.
The trip to the Big Apple didn’t stop Michigan’s roll as they knocked off Iowa, Nebraska, #2 Michigan State, and #8 Purdue in succession to capture the tournament title and the conference’s automatic bid to the Big Dance. During the nine-game winning streak bridging the end of the regular season and conference tournament, the Wolverines averaged 76.8 points per game on offense and gave up just 64 points per game defensively. These were the first signs of what was to come for Michigan, nearly a full two weeks before the tournament started.
March 15th & 17th, 2018
Thanks to their season-ending hot streak, Michigan was given a 3-seed by the tournament selection committee which led to a first round match-up against Montana in the West region. Michigan’s offense struggled, scoring just 61 points, but the defense was dominant, giving up just 47 and holding the Grizzlies to 32-percent shooting for the game.
The win over Montana led to a Round of 32 game against 6-seed Houston, who barely escaped the upset bid of San Diego State (67-65) in the first round. The Cougars outplayed Michigan for most of the night, but could never pull away. However, with Houston holding a 63-61 win with just four seconds left, it looked like the lights would go out on Michigan’s season. Then, Jordan Poole provided some tournament magic, catching a half-court baseball pass from the inbound and knocking down an off-balance three as time expired to send the Wolverines to the Sweet 16 and a date with 7-seed Texas A&M which had knocked off the 2-seed North Carolina.
March 22nd & 24th, 2018
From the start, Michigan blitzed A&M, jumping out to a 22-8 lead with 11:30 to play in the first half. That continued throughout the first half as Michigan went to the locker room with a 52-28 lead that would turn out to be insurmountable. A&M would never get closer than 20 points as the Wolverines coasted into the Elite Eight with a 99-72 win. Abdur-Rahkman (24), Wagner (21), Matthews (18), Simpson (11) and Robinson (10) all scored in double-figures as the team shot nearly 62 percent from the floor (61.9%) and 58 percent from three (14/24). It was on to the regional final, where the Wolverines would face 9-seed Florida State, who was fresh off a stunning upset of top seed Xavier.
The win over A&M was about the offense, but to get to the Final Four, the Wolverines needed to lock down on defense in a tussle with a hyper-athletic Seminoles squad. The teams combined to shoot just 8-of-39 from three and Michigan needed a pair of late misses by PJ Savoy and CJ Walker along with a pair of free throws from Duncan Robinson to seal their first Final Four berth since 2013. Charles Matthews was the offensive leader with 17 points while also contributing eight rebounds.
The 58-54 win, sent the Wolverines to San Antonio where they will meet with 11-seed Loyola-Chicago, the Cinderella of this year’s ball. They’ll be the first game on the docket this Saturday when the game tips off at 6:09 p.m. Eastern Time on TBS.