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Saturday, January 11, 2020

Three keys to Michigan punching their Ticket to Minneapolis

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Last season, Michigan got to the Final Four for the second time under John Beilein. This year, Beilein’s team is in yet another prime position to get back there.

The Wolverines have cruised in two double-digit wins so far in the NCAA Tournament. First came a 74-55 win over 15 seed Montana. Then two days later, a 64-49 triumph over Florida, as Michigan held the Gators to their lowest scoring output of the season.

Michigan is now in their third straight Sweet Sixteen, and Beilein has the program rolling. But, with success comes heightened expectations. And those expectations have been raised to get back to another Final Four. And if they get to a Final Four, to bring what would be the program’s second title back to Ann Arbor.

This year’s team is capable of doing just that. But there are still some question marks, as we saw in some of their losses this season.

Here are three keys to Michigan cutting down the nets in Anaheim:

Knowing their identity

At this point in the season, teams have found out who they are. So what do we know about this year’s Michigan team?

We know they are elite on defense. The numbers back that up. They rank No. 2 in KenPom’s defensive efficiency rankings. That side of the ball has been their calling card all season.

Zavier Simpson can lock up almost any point guard in the country. Charles Matthews is most often put on the opposing team’s best scorer to try to slow him down. And Jon Teske has become a more than competent protector of the rim.

But what do these three players also have in common? They are capable of going through slumps offensively, and that’s reflected at times in games. But at this point in the season, that can’t matter to them.

Scoring droughts can’t allow this team to lose its poise, as John Beilein said when they played in East Lansing when they were playing for a Big Ten title.

If Michigan plays at the level they usually play at on defense, they will be in every game. And hopefully, have just enough offense to get them by.

Jordan Poole…Can he heat up?

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Michigan guard Jordan Poole might be the most frustrating player on the roster. But he only provides frustration because people know his talent level is so high.

Poole was criticized for his shot selection in the Big Ten Tournament game against Michigan State. He seemed to play more within himself against Montana, scoring 10 points on just four shots.

Then against Florida, Poole led Michigan with 19 points. He did take 15 shots to get there, and only made five of them, but he did go 5 of 5 from the foul line.

But this game seemed to be different with Poole. Most of the shots he took were quality looks. He was 4 of 9 from three but struggled to finish inside the three-point line most of the time.

However, if Poole keeps getting and taking quality shots, he is bound to heat up. He is a streaky shooter, but if he can get going, Michigan’s offense becomes much more dangerous.

Bench must be confident

Much has been made this season about Michigan not being a particularly deep team. However, when Charles Matthews went down late in the regular season with an ankle injury, it forced some guys into some minutes.

Isaiah Livers has been fantastic off the bench this season. We mostly know what we are going to get from him: A guy who plays within the offense, takes good shots, and is efficient on both ends of the floor.

But it is guys like Eli Brooks and Colin Castleton who could be dark horse contributors.

Brooks has been quietly playing well since his spot was nearly taken by freshman David Dejulius. He gave Michigan good minutes late in the regular season and the Big Ten Tournament.

He even scored four points on 2 of 2 shooting against Florida, as he took it to the basket and finished twice. When he is confident, he can contribute, and the Wolverines will need that from him going forward.

Castleton, on the other hand, has shown flashes. Most notably in a late-season game against Nebraska, in which he scored 11 points in nine minutes off the bench.

He doesn’t get a ton of minutes. But if Teske gets in foul trouble, he will be the first big off the bench. He must stay ready. Maybe those minutes he has gotten will prepare him in the event he is needed.

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