In a bracket littered by low seeds, the inevitability of a Gonzaga-Baylor national championship — No. 1 seed versus No. 1 seed — seemed to emerge as the true gems.
The top two overall seeds on Selection Sunday have looked dominant in the NCAA Tournament. Discussions about Michigan in national sports shows have basically relegated the Wolverines as a 1B seed.
On Sunday, the Wolverines loudly cleared their throats and regained some well-earned attention with a convincing 76-58 victory against defensively stout and intimidatingly long No. 4 seed Florida State for a trip to the Elite Eight.
“We’re grinding, man,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said, “and we’re doing it collectively.”
Michigan, the lone survivor from the nine Big Ten teams who started out in this Indianapolis cluster, proved its indestructibility once again.
A loss of a key player like Isaiah Livers, whose stay on the sidelines with a foot injury is “indefinite” according to Howard, could uncoil many a tournament team.
Losing the second-leading scorer could create added pressure. Chemistry could combust. The next man up might not be up to the challenge.
But Michigan has sailed along.
“We don’t make excuses here at Michigan,” Howard said. “We feel so sorry for Isaiah with the injury. During any time of the season when a player goes down with an injury, it’s very unfortunate, and your heart breaks for that player. Our guys band together like brothers. They lift them up and keep their spirits. He’s been amazing on the sidelines as far as with his injury and keeping guys engaged and being another coach out there for us. But it’s great to see that other guys have stepped up, and it’s been collectively as a group where guys have stepped up with his absence.”
Brandon Johns Jr. moved into a starting forward role when Livers was hampered in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals against Maryland. The junior supplied a season-high 14 points with six rebounds in the Sweet 16 win.
In four games — from the conference tournament semifinal against Ohio State and three NCAA Tournament games — Johns has averaged 9.8 points while playing 25.5 minutes. (He didn’t log more than nine minutes in any February games.) He’s also made 20 of 26 free-throw attempts during that span.
“He’s so talented,” sophomore Franz Wagner said. “We always tell him that he can really be the best player out there when he steps on the court. So we have huge confidence in Brandon. I think he does too. You can see, he played a stellar game today, got some key offensive rebounds, and those little things, I think, are very important when you try to win the championship.”
Florida State’s length and defense were expected to pose a challenge to the Wolverines. But Michigan was aggressive, going to the paint to score 50 points and crashing the boards for a 37-31 advantage.
Michigan shot better than 75% for much of the second half, ultimately making 18 of 26 second-half shots and shooting 49.2% from the field.
The Wolverines showcased their array of contributors: freshman center Hunter Dickinson finished with 14 points and eight rebounds, Wagner notched a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds and Chaundee Brown Jr. added 12 points.
“Actually, without Isaiah, we have another weapon that’s not out there,” Wagner said. “But I think we’ve seen all season that we have multiple guys that can score a lot of points.”
Michigan fans made it, at times, seem like Bankers Life Fieldhouse wasn’t only 25% full with about 5,000 fans. They chanted “Let’s go blue!” and the Michigan fight song blared on speakers as players jogged into the tunnel to applause.
Gonzaga is still undefeated and on a tear. Baylor’s toughness is hard to deny.
But Michigan looked like a contender too in the Sweet 16.
Howard pointed to fans and pumped his fist before leaving the court.
He’s been to three Elite Eights as a player. But now he’s coaching in his first at his alma mater.
“Michigan has had a lot of success in the basketball program,” Howard said. “It’s just beautiful to see that all the hard work is paying off this year.”
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