9:40 PM EST, CBS – Line: Michigan -3.5, Over/Under: 134.5
A trip to the Sweet Sixteen is on the line tonight in Wichita, Kansas as the Third Seed Michigan Wolverines look to keep their momentum going against the Six Seed Houston Cougars in their Third Round Matchup in the West Regional. Momentum isn’t something exclusive to the Wolverines, for Houston (27-7, 14-4 in AAC) has entered the NCAA Tournament with a good deal of their own, winning six out of their last seven outings, and eleven of their past thirteen overall. The American Athletic Conference Runners-Up find themselves back in the NCAA Tournament after a particularly long drought, making only their second appearance in the Big Dance since 1992, with their last trip being in 2010. In his fourth season with the Program, Kelvin Sampson has slowly rebuilt the Cougars, winning twenty-seven games thus far, their most since a 25-Win Campaign back in 1991-1992. However, the most important victory was their most recent one, a narrow 67-65 triumph over San Diego State, which marked the School’s first NCAA Tournament Win since 1984, back when Phi Slamma Jamma Alums Guy Lewis, Akeem Olajuwon, and Clyde Drexler were leading the team to three consecutive National Finals. Leading 39-29 at Halftime, the Cougars allowed the Aztecs to climb their way back into the contest, tying the game with just Twenty-Nine Seconds remaining, when Senior Guard Rob Gray (19.2 PTS, 45.1% FG, 35.2% 3FG, 3.5 REB, 4.4 AST, 1.2 STL, 24.8 PER) played the role of hero. A week after failing to force Overtime in his team’s AAC Championship Game Loss to Cincinnati, Gray calmly dribbled down the court, split two defenders, flipping a wild lay-up that fell through the net with just 1.1 Seconds left. After desperate contended Three-Pointer fell harmlessly to the floor, Sampson and his charges successfully earned their first Tourney Win in well over thirty years. Thursday’s clash was a very defensive affair in which both teams struggled to shoot the basketball, with each shooting barely over 37.0% from the Field. Houston in particular was pretty brutal on this end of the court, shooting a meager 37.0% from within the Three-Point Line, while dishing out a dismal Five Assists, despite turning the ball over just seven times. Gray was in the zone though, scoring a game-high Thirty-Nine Points on 12-of-25 Shooting (48.0%), including 4-of-6 from Beyond the Arc (66.7%), along with 11-of-15 from the Free-Throw Line (73.3%), adding Eight Rebounds and a Steal to his impressive Stat Line. The difference in the game though, ultimately came at the Charity Stripe, where San Diego State simply failed to make the most of their opportunities; Brian Dutcher’s charges attempted a whopping Thirty-Five Free-Throws, but only managed to net Twenty-One of them, which is an absolute killer in a game decided by such a close margin. While Gray continues to pace the Offense, this team must continue to play at a high level defensively if they wish to progress further through this Tournament. This shouldn’t be an issue, for Sampson has molded his troops into one of the finest defensive teams in the country, allowing just 64.9 Points (19th Overall) on 39.6% Shooting from the Field (7th Overall), including 43.7% from within the Arc (8th Overall), and 32.6% beyond it (49th Overall), while permitting 10.9 Assist (40th Overall) and forcing 13.2 Turnovers (107th Overall). While his players may lack the requisite experience to make a long run in this Tournament, Sampson has enjoyed plenty of success in his own right, with fourteen previous appearances in the Big Dance with the likes of Washington State, Oklahoma, and Indiana, including a trip to the Final Four back in 2002.
Meanwhile, you’d be hard-pressed to find a team in this Tournament hotter than Michigan (29-7, 13-5 in Big Ten), who have won ten consecutive games in route to earning their second consecutive Big Ten Tournament Title. After finishing fourth in Conference Play, didn’t have a ton of buzz heading into March, though after slaying the likes of Michigan State (75-64) and Purdue (75-66) in back-to-back nights it seems that they’ve found the spark needed to make yet another deep run in the NCAAs. After all, John Beilein has been one of the more successful postseason coaches in recent memory, particularly in his time leading the Maize & Blue, with trips to the Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, and the National Final on his ledger. Last year’s unit was rather similar to this one, washing away a disappointing Regular Season, to earn the Automatic Selection granted to the Conference Tourney Champs, and taking advantage of matchups to nearly upset eventual Final Four participant Oregon in the Sweet Sixteen (69-68). Much like their opponent tonight, Michigan has progressed to this point largely on the strength of their Defense, which never more apparent than in their 61-47 victory over Fourteen Seed Montana Thursday Night. Beilein’s troops limited the Grizzlies to a mere Nineteen Points in the Second Half (7-of-28 FG), relegating them to just 32.1% Shooting from the Field Overall, including 15-of-41 from within the Arc (36.6%) and 3-of-15 beyond it (20.0%), while forcing a Dozen Turnovers in comparison to permitting a scant Seven Assists. And it was a good thing they managed to snuff their opposition out on that end of the floor, for it was far from a stellar offensive performance for the Wolverines, who shot 44.7% from the Field, including 5-of-16 from Downtown (31.3%), while recording more Turnovers (13) than Assists (11). This was definitely a game that they had to grind their way out of, as they were forced to erase a 10-0 deficit to begin the contest. Defensive Dynamo Zavier Simpson (7.4 REB, 48.3% FG, 31.9% 3FG, 3.1 REB, 3.6 AST, 1.1 STL, 16.2 PER) was limited to just over Four Minutes of action in the First Half due to Foul Trouble, while Moritz Wagner (14.3 PTS, 53.6% FG, 40.0% 3FG, 7.1 REB, 0.8 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.6 BLK, 24.4 PER) struggled to find the bottom of the net on 0-of-3 Shooting from the Field before Intermission, though Charles Matthews (12.8 PTS, 49.4% FG, 33.0% 3FG, 5.6 REB, 2.6 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.6 BLK, 18.7 PER) put his team, carrying them out of the early doldrums with Twenty Points 7-of-13 Shooting (53.8%) and Eleven Rebounds. When you think of Beilein, it’s natural to think of Offense, though as we stated earlier, this incarnation of the Wolverines is built upon their defensive prowess, limiting opponents to 63.1 Points (8th Overall) on 42.7% Shooting form the Field (98th Overall), including 46.7% Shooting from within the Arc (58th Overall) and 33.4% beyond it (101st Overall), while permitting 10.3 Assists (40th Overall) and forcing 12.8 Turnovers (86th Overall). However, arguably their most endearing quality in this Tournament continues to be their ability to take of the basketball; good luck turning these kids over, for they have averaged only 9.3 Turnovers per Game, the Eighth-Fewest in the country.