A long weekend of watching and waiting ended happily for Michigan basketball, which survived the volatility of the bubble to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
The Wolverines are the 11th seed in the South Region and will face 6th seed Colorado State in the Round of 16.
“Super excited for our team that we have the opportunity to play in the tournament,” coach Juwan Howard said on a Zoom call Sunday night. the players worked extremely hard and earned the right to be part of the NCAA Tournament.”
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The bracket reveal was met with equal excitement and relief for a side that started the season ranked in the top 10 and were seen by many as the favorites to win the Big Ten. Howard led UM to the Elite Eight a year ago and parlayed that momentum into one of the best recruiting classes in the nation to fuel expectations.
But Michigan struggled almost immediately, losing three of its first seven games and seven of its first 14 with a brief COVID-19-related stoppage along the way. The Wolverines started 1-3 in the Big Ten before gain ground in late January to establish They finished the regular season 17-13 overall and 11-9 in the league, never climbing more than two games above .500 in conference play.
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The checkerboard nature of Michigan’s resume produced varying levels of nervousness for program members ahead of Sunday’s draft show. For point guard DeVante ‘Jones, a transfer graduate who has never played in the NCAA, there was genuine unease about UM’s chances. center Hunter Dickinson, who tested the NBA waters before returning to Ann Arbor for another season, there was confidence in what the Wolverines had accomplished.
Crew chiefs were the most worried group, according to Dickinson, who told reporters “you’d think they were their own little Joe Lunardi offering parentheses.”
Their varying levels of angst eased when Michigan’s name appeared on television and were quickly replaced by the idea that UM had had another chance, a new season, as Howard described it. Dickinson told reporters there was a locker room joke about the Wolverines alternating wins and losses in their last 10 games. By falling to Indiana last week, Dickinson said, they set themselves up for a win.
“I think it’s fair to continue this streak for one more game,” Dickinson said with a wry smile. “And then, you know, just see where things go from there.”
How things go depends on Michigan’s performance against Colorado State (25-5, 14-4 Mountain West), a team that finished above Howard’s group in the NET rankings (No. 28) and the ranking KenPom (No. 31) while earning 13 wins over Quad 1 and Quad 2 opponents to eight for the Wolverines.
Led by coach Niko Medved, who once served as head coach at Drake and Furman, the Rams are one of the strongest offensive teams in the nation. They rank 20th in adjusted offensive efficiency, 11th in percentage in two-point field goals (56.3%) and 19th in free throw percentage (77.4%). CSU’s leading scorer, guard David Roddy, averages 19.4 points per game and shoots 45.5 percent from 3-point range on 99 attempts and was conference player of the year.
“It’s going to be really exciting,” Dickinson said. “For me, it’s fun to scout a new opponent. It can get a bit – not boring – but it’s the same over and over again with these Big Ten, playing them twice, even three times a season, so for us to be able to face someone new, I feel like it’s a good thing because you don’t know him and that “He doesn’t know you. So hopefully we can figure out some things about them that we can use to our advantage.”
Common opponents between the two teams are San Diego State and UNLV. Michigan earned a comprehensive 72-58 victory over SDSU at Crisler Center in December for its most notable non-conference result. The Rams have faced San Diego State three times — twice in the regular season, once in the Mountain West tournament — and lost twice, including a 79-49 blowout in early January.
UM also beat UNLV on neutral ground at the Roman Main Event in Las Vegas. CSU lost both games against the Rebels.
Colorado State is making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2013, and neither UM players nor Howard knew much about the Rams when the pairing was announced.
Wolverines focused on the excitement of being included in March Madness after a season that was more uncertain than anything else. Their resume was put to the test on Sunday night, and the Wolverines were thrilled to dance for a sixth consecutive time.
“I feel like when I get home I might just cry because as a kid it’s something you just pray for,” Jones said. “And the last three years at Coastal Carolina, I gave it my all and I always failed. So to be able to come here to a university like Michigan with Juwan Howard and the rest of the amazing coaching staff, having the opportunity to play in March Madness is something that not everyone can take it very seriously and enjoy it.”
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