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Post "Time to Put Cinderella to Bed": Michigan-Loyola Showdown, 31 March (from Edward Mears)
Created by John Eipper on 03/30/18 4:48 AM

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"Time to Put Cinderella to Bed": Michigan-Loyola Showdown, 31 March (from Edward Mears) (John Eipper, USA, 03/30/18 4:48 am)

Edward Mears writes:

As the game clock struck zeros in Atlanta last weekend, maroon and gold confetti fluttered down to the hardwood from the Philips Arena rafters, confirming that all of us had in fact been transported to the most improbable of timelines: the scrappy Loyola Chicago men's basketball team of the unheralded Missouri Valley Conference had turned the NCAA Tournament's South Region on its head and punched their ticket to the Final Four. There is no need to re-hash the incredible achievements of this Loyola Chicago team which were beautifully summarized in David Duggan's post of March 27th, and despite some matchup luck along the way (Loyola Chicago was able to avoid overall #1 seed Virginia, #2 seed Cincinnati and blue-blood Kentucky on its way through the especially chaotic South Region), the Ramblers have clearly demonstrated that they belong amongst the nation's basketball elite and will prove a tough out during college basketball's final weekend of the season. With some Easter magic sprinkled on the Alamodome by their fairy godmother Sister Jean, they may just win the damn thing.

Loyola Chicago's challenger in the first semifinal game of this Final Four weekend will be the Michigan Wolverines, who after putting up a remarkable run of their own through the Big Ten Tournament and the West Region of the NCAA Tournament (while also avoiding the top two seeds in their region), were unceremoniously bequeathed the title of Most Hated Team in America; an albatross too heavy for the likes of Kansas State, Tennessee and other opponents vanquished by Cinderella Loyola Chicago during their stampede through March. And the Michigan basketball program is certainly easy to hate. With recent past success (including a run at the national championship only five years ago), a particularly snobbish fan base rivaling only that of Notre Dame, and a pay-for-play basketball scandal involving the iconic fab five teams of the 1990s still fresh on the program's conscience, very little effort is required for the nation's sportswriters and casual basketball fans to paint this Michigan team as Lady Tremaine in their matchup against Loyola Chicago.

If one can look beyond the sanctimonious clickbait churned out by the national media this week anointing Loyola Chicago and Sister Jean as America's darlings, there is a Michigan team having its own deserving claim to a glass slipper. And with a bit of maize and blue luck this Saturday night against Loyola Chicago, Michigan's 2017-2018 team may just just find itself resurrected on Easter Sunday as the tournament's real Cinderella with a championship date against either of the #1 seeds (Kansas and Villanova) facing off in the other semi-final. The Wolverines are led by long-time coach John Beilein, considered an offensive "system" coach who focuses on ball movement, passing and exploiting other team synergies to open up shots for his high-percentage beyond-the-arc shooters. He is also known for operating a squeaky clean program, and while his reluctance to engage in the seedier recruiting practices pervasive in college basketball these days may mean that he misses out on the nation's top recruits, he has dutifully earned a reputation as one of best developers in the game, turning numerous middling recruits into NBA lottery picks year after year. His teams have always been characterized by their plucky offense, and his past Michigan teams have relied on terrific three-point shooting from NBA talent to make deep tournament runs (see, e.g., the 2013 Final Four team led by NBA lottery picks Trey Burke, Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas).

But this year's team does not possess the same offensive NBA wizardry enjoyed by Beilein's earlier teams. Michigan's best player of the 2016-2017 season, DJ Wilson, departed school early for the NBA draft, leaving the 2017-2018 team with few offensive weapons and a collection of misfit toys having almost no recruiting accolades: junior center Moritz Wagner had no other college offers and was discovered by John Beilein far from the recruiting circuit in Berlin, Germany; senior shooting guard Duncan Robinson transferred to Michigan from Division III Williams College after being looked over by top schools during high school and received his only Division 1 transfer offer from Michigan; sophomore shooting guard Charles Matthews transferred to Michigan after not cutting it at Calipari's NBA-factory in Lexington; senior point guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman had no major offers coming out of high school and signed with Michigan late after a roster spot opened up; while undersized sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson only came to Michigan after Beilein's preferred recruiting target that year signed with rival Michigan State at the signing deadline. At the start of the season, most Michigan fans and press wrote off this team as likely bound for the NIT as the offense was just not there and Beilein's defenses had been historically bad.

After ominous losses to LSU, UNC and Ohio State early in the season, Michigan found itself down 15 points at the half to a very mediocre UCLA team at home, a perilous situation for this young team which was running out of opportunities to secure a signature out-of-conference victory all but necessary to make the NCAA Tournament in the flattened Division 1 landscape. Some fairy dust made its way into the Michigan water cooler at halftime, however, and the team came out energized, putting together a stingy defensive performance that forced the game to OT, where Michigan eventually prevailed. After this inflection point it was off to the races for the Wolverines as the defense gelled and center Wagner began to find his shooting rhythm, to the consternation of opposing defenders. Over the rest of the regular season, the Wolverines secured victories over rivals Ohio State and Michigan State, while suffering razor-thin losses to top Big Ten team Purdue. In typical Beilein fashion, the team became hot just in time for the postseason, breezing through the Big Ten Tournament in New York which included some cathartic revenge against Purdue and yet another victory over rival Michigan State. After cutting down the nets at Madison Square Garden, Michigan secured a 3 seed in the NCAA tournament, where they moved on to take down Montana, Houston (albeit on a prayer buzzer beater), Texas A&M and Florida State on their way to the Final Four.

This story of this year's Wolverines has been the uncharacteristically stout defense, which improved drastically over last year and carried the team through some poor shooting performances in the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament. This sea change is a credit to Beilein's addition of defensive specialist Luke Yaklich, who before landing in Ann Arbor had spent 3 years as an assistant coach in the Missouri Valley Conference, where his Illinois State teams enjoyed a 7-1 record against Loyola Chicago over that same time period. This experience should provide Beilein and the Wolverines with some much-needed insight into Loyola's woefully under-scouted offense as they prepare for Saturday's game. Loyola Chicago's starters are all deadly shooters and play a "small-ball" style of basketball that Michigan has not seen much of this year. This has the potential to throw Michigan's defense off its game due to the number of shooting threats on the Loyola Chicago squad, but the schematic advantage due to Yaklich's experience playing against Loyola should help Michigan formulate a solid defensive plan to contain Loyola Chicago's three-point shooters.

This will be a difficult game for Michigan to win, but with the week off to prepare I am confident that Michigan will come out strong and be in a position to win the game late and finally put this Cinderella to bed.

Go Blue!

PS: the Michigan hockey team also made the so-called "Frozen Four" of the NCAA Division 1 hockey tournament, where they will face off against Notre Dame, putting two Michigan teams in the bizarre position of playing Catholic opponents in national semi-final games on Easter weekend. Only on six occasions has a school had teams in both the basketball Final Four and hockey Frozen Four in the same year, and only schools from the state of Michigan have accomplished this feat. This is the fourth time for Michigan, while Michigan State has done it twice.

JE comments:  Brilliantly done, Eddie, and an excellent rejoinder to David Duggan's piece on Loyola.  No one can resist a Cinderella story, but the time has come for loyal (not Loyola) Michiganders to say enough is enough:  Go Blue.

Our own Adrian College is a hockey powerhouse in its own right.  A couple weeks ago the men's Division I ACHA team captured the national championship.  Congratulations to the Bulldogs!


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