NCAA Tournament Preview West Region - First Round (9) Tennessee vs. (8) Michigan
Friday, March 18 - 12:40 PM ET
After a loss on January 22, the Michigan Wolverines were sitting in a deep ditch at 1-6 in Big Ten conference play. Things were looking bleak, as had been expected - after all, this was the Big Ten's youngest team and one of the greenest team in the nation.
Something changed after that. Something powerful. An unexpected resurgence led to an NCAA Tournament berth in a year when the folks in Ann Arbor weren’t expecting one at all.
A team meeting was held when Michigan found itself at the bottom of its conference, and the team came out with a new found intensity five days later, beating Michigan State on the road for the first time since 1997. The magic continued, as the Wolverines won eight of their last 11 games and then uncorked a bold comeback to beat Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals before falling to Ohio State in the semifinals. That proved to be enough, as the Maize and Blue were invited to the dance and given an eight seed.
This marks Michigan’s return to Bracketville after a brief absence; UM made an appearance in 2009, a trip that ended a 12-year NCAA Tournament drought in John Beilein's second year as coach of the team. That time around, Michigan was the 10 seed, pulling off a first round upset before falling in the second round. This is Beilein's sixth trip to the tourney. He's also taken Canisius, Richmond and West Virginia dancing. Not many men in the history of college basketball have taken four teams to the sport’s championship tournament; Beilein’s career is one of the most underrated in the coaching profession.
Michigan's numbers put the Wolverines at average levels, at best, in terms of offense. They don't score a lot… or rebound very well… or even shoot all that well. That said, the team is dangerous if guards Darius Morris (15.2 points per game, 6.7 assists per game) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (13.9 points per game) can get to the hoop. Both are solid finishers, but are also able to dump it off inside for an easy basket or find Zack Novak and Stu Douglass on the perimeter for a three.
Tennessee enters this contest from a decidedly different vantage point. The Volunteers lost six of their last nine games, and after beating a subpar Arkansas team in the first round of the SEC Tournament they fell hard to Florida in the quarterfinals. The Volunteers have been living off of a 7-0 start to their season, including wins over Villanova and Pittsburgh which gave their resume the heft needed to absorb a bunch of defeats. Without those twin takedowns of two Big East clubs who have made their way to the Dance, Tennessee might be prepping for an NIT game right now. After going 12-14 to end the season, the Vols are going to need to turn things around quickly. The Volunteers do have the experience, making it to the Elite Eight as a six seed last year before falling to Michigan State in a game that wasn’t decided until the final horn. This is the sixth straight year the Volunteers have made it to the tournament; only once have they not won their opening game (2009 against Oklahoma State). Their six-year run coincides with the arrival of coach Bruce Pearl, who is 8-5 with Tennessee in the tournament and 10-7 overall.
Like Michigan, Tennessee hovers around average in most categories. The one exception is on the boards, where the Vols rank 33rd by pulling in 38 rebounds a game. The Volunteers run out of a half-court set, preferring to out-muscle their opponents; they don’t run as well as they have in the recent past, and that’s part of why they haven’t been as effective. Pearl wants his teams to run, but this group doesn’t play racehorse basketball with supreme effectiveness.
Offensively, the Vols are led by Scotty Hopson (17.4 points per game) and freshman Tobias Harris (15.2 points per game). The Volunteers have struggled on offense aside from those two players: Guard Cameron Tatum is in a huge slump and has lost his spot in the lineup. The rotation runs eleven players deep, allowing the Volunteers to stay fresh. That is a big key for a team that works to play shutdown defense; the Volunteers hold opponents to 67.3 points and 41.5 percent shooting.
The Volunteers defense will be tested, especially on the perimeter by the Wolverines' shooters. The Wolves will sometimes turn to a 1-3-1 trap – a Beilein staple – on defense, meaning that the Vols will have to go over the top of Michigan’s defense, using the skip pass instead of the dribble. If the trap is broken, the Wolverines will need someone to step up and stop Hopson. The Volunteers are physical and have the height to dominate the boards, which could be vital in a close game.
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