March 21, 2017
By KEITH GAVE
OK, all of you wannabe NCAA bracketologists who picked two No. 7 seeds to come out of their regionals to play a pair of No. 3 seeds in this week’s Round of Sixteen, go to the head of the class.
The rest of us can pause from licking our wounds and whining about how our brackets look like a frat house the morning after a kegger – and stand back and applaud.
Granted, many of us in these parts, enamored with what this Michigan team has gone through the past couple of weeks, picked the Wolverines as sentimental favorites. Picking Oregon to advance after a couple of wins didn’t require much chutzpah either; the Ducks were a serious contender for a No. 1 seed with a shot at the national title until they lost versatile big man Chris Boucher for the season with a torn ACL. He was averaging 11.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks a game in his senior season – the kind of player who could give a team like Michigan fits.
Back to that matchup in a moment.
Those of you who had Baylor and South Caroline surviving their bracket to play in the Sweet Sixteen deserve special recognition. Remember, that was South Carolina of the SEC that beat Duke – rather handily, mind you, not rival North Carolina of the ACC.
Duke losing in the second round after all that whining from the Blue Devils about how they were robbed of another undeserved No. 1 seed, seemed like poetic justice. As does a team with the likes of spoiled-brat bully Grayson Allen, getting, uh, “tripped up” so early in the tournament. Karma is, indeed, a bitch.
For those of us who hold the Dookies in the same low esteem we hold the New York Yankees, Notre Dame and Ohio State, having our brackets bloodied by such a loss is a small price to pay.
Especially after Michigan opened a day of exhilarating competition on Sunday with such a workmanlike victory over Louisville. And the way the Wolverines did it was beautiful. Louisville coach Rick Pitino had raved about the Wolverines and their three-point shooting, which powered them past Oklahoma State in the opening round. Pitino compared the Wolverines’ outshoot shooters to the kind of talent that helped the Golden State Warriors to an NBA title in 2015.
His point was directed to his team: Prevent Michigan from scoring from behind the arc and the Wolverines cannot win. But then Michigan coach John Beilein went to work and drew up a plan to beat the No. 2 seed Cardinals.
While the Wolverines were shooting just 6-17 from three-point range, Beilein unleashed his German import Moritz Wagner, a freshman forward, who went to work on the inside – where
Louisville was supposed to hold a distinct advantage. The 6-foot-11 forward had his way all afternoon, hitting 11 of 14 shots from the field – including the only one he took from long range, for a game-high 26 points.
Who would have thought?
John Beilein did, and isn’t it about time we start mentioning his name in the same sentence when we talk about the other great college basketball coaches in America, guys like Krzyzewski, Izzo, Williams, Self and Pitino.
My radio partner on the Friday Face-Off (WGRY, 101.1-FM), Jerry Coyne (J.C. in the Afternoon, Q-100, 100.3), made a great and valid point: There’s a reason why great former NBA players send their boys to Michigan to play for Beilein. He holds them to the highest standards while preparing them for the next level.
That’s not to say Tom Izzo doesn’t do that at Michigan State. He does. But Izzo has long been recognized as one of the best in his profession. My point is that it’s time John Beilein to get this kind of recognition, too. And if he gets his team to the Final Four, which is by no means a stretch of the imagination, he should start getting that from the national media as well.
Oregon (31-5) will be a tough out. Trailing most of the game against a gritty Rhode Island team that deserved better, the Ducks asserted their will in the final few minutes to advance. This team, even without Boucher, will give Michigan, a 1.5-point favorite, all it can handle and then some when the teams meet at 7 p.m. on Thursday.
Should the Wolverines advance, they’ll face the winner of the Kansas-Purdue game. The Jayhawks, which dispatched Michigan in a 20-point rout, are a 4.5-point favorite. Either team will be another high hurdle. Michigan beat Purdue (27-7), the Big Ten regular-season champion, in overtime in the conference tournament. Kansas (30-4) is the region’s No. 1 seed.
But as the Wolverines have shown us since the day after they jumped out of the emergency exits of that crippled aircraft that ran out of runway on takeoff at the Willow Run Airport, anything can happen when you’re playing for the sheer joy of the experience. And nobody is having more fun than Michigan right now – or playing better.
Prediction: J.C. has Michigan in the Final Four. Who am I to argue?