NCAA Tournament Predictions: Duke vs. Michigan
by Trevor Whenham - 3/19/2011
NCAA Tournament Round of 32
No. 1 Duke (-11.5) vs. No. 8 Michigan
Charlotte, North Carolina
Sunday, March 20, approx. 2:45 p.m. EST
These are giddy times to be a Michigan fan. My beloved Wolverines looked to be en route to a season almost as disappointing as last year’s when they started conference play with an ugly 1-6 record. A switch flipped, though, and this team hasn’t looked back since. They were 9-3 down the stretch in conference play, won a game in the Big Ten Tournament, crushed the life out of Tennessee in their opening game, and showed without question that this is a team moving in the right direction.
Now they face the best coached team in the tournament -- and, other than perhaps the Lakers, the best coached on the planet -- and they have a big disadvantage in both experience and overall talent. Let me be clear, though -- Michigan is totally capable of winning this game. I’m not (necessarily) saying they will, but you should absolutely not be surprised if this game is a close one.
If you are reading this then you already know a lot about Duke -- it’s hard not to these days. Let’s ignore them (with one necessary exception) and focus instead on what the Wolverines bring to the table, and what makes me believe in their chances for my NCAA Tournament predictions:
Age and experience - There is an obvious difference in experience between these teams. Duke has two senior stars. Michigan doesn’t have a single senior on the roster, only two juniors who play, and a roster led by a sophomore and a freshman. Duke won it all last year. Michigan has only two players who have played in the tournament before.
I could go on, but you get the point. While Duke will always have the edge here, Michigan’s youth isn’t the problem it once appeared to be. In fact, it’s become a bit of an advantage. Without senior leadership to rely on this team has had to learn together, and they are really growing into their capabilities as the season progresses.
Could this team have stood up to this challenge in November? Not at all. It’s a long way from November, though, and this team is not the team we saw then.
Tennessee game - Michigan’s win over Tennessee was as dominant as any win by an eight or nine seed in the first round has ever been. It was also the first time a team has won a game -- never mind won by 30 -- without sinking a single foul shot (they were 0-1 for the game). It was an incredible display.
Critics suggest that the team was in the right position to capitalize on a Tennessee team that was extremely distracted and vulnerable. While that is somewhat true, you can’t take away from what Michigan did.
Tennessee was vulnerable, but it was the Wolverines that pushed them over the edge. That was thanks to relentless defense, strong shooting, confidence that grew through the game, and strong coaching.
Michigan also showed a remarkable ability to adjust. Tennessee was using their edges in athleticism and length to the advantage for much of the first half, so Michigan changed their defensive approach late in the half to close the gap and go into halftime with a lead.
In the first half they were ripped apart by freshman stud Tobias Harris -- he had 19 points in the half and was a one-man wrecking crew. Harris didn’t have a single point in the second half -- largely because of the adjustments Michigan made.
Tennessee was a very troubled team, but the way Michigan played that game they would have beaten a far better, far more prepared team. The game has also given Michigan a whole lot of confidence -- a crucial element when playing a team like Duke.
Shooting - There is one stat that really is at the heart of this game and the Michigan team -- when they have shot threes at a higher percentage than their opponent this year they are 17-1. That means they are 4-12 when the threes aren’t draining. Michigan needs to establish their shooting confidence early. If they don’t then they are doomed -- simple as that.
Michigan against strong teams - Michigan is a team that rises to the challenge against the best opponents. They haven’t had a breakthrough against a top-level team this year, but they had a lot of near-breaks.
They came down to the last seconds against Syracuse. In a four-day stretch they took Kansas to overtime and made Ohio State sweat. Wisconsin needed an impossible last second three pointer to sneak out with a win. This team can contend with very good teams. This isn’t a new thing, either -- John Beilein always has his team ready for the toughest games.
In 2008, for example, his Michigan squad beat a vastly superior Duke team. Beilein will have all sorts of things to work with to motivate his team here -- the long rivalry with Duke (which has intensified this week thanks to the Jalen Rose vs. Grant Hill war that has played out in the media), the importance of the tournament, the fact that no one is picking them, and so on.
It’s highly likely that we are going to see everything Michigan is capable of in this one. That’s not enough if Duke plays their very best, but if they falter at all then it could be very interesting.
You could argue that Duke is too good and too well coached to falter in this one, but we saw them have an off day on the biggest possible stage last year. If Gordon Hayward had had a bit more luck late in the championship game then we’d be talking about this Duke team differently this year.
Kyrie Irving - This is the one factor regarding Duke we have to discuss. Irving made his return from a very long absence due to injury against Hampton. He started rough and wasn’t always smooth, but he played 20 minutes and put up some solid numbers.
If Irving is healthy then he’s a total difference maker. Duke with Irving would be a very solid favorite to win it all. The problem, though, is that we have no idea if Irving really is healthy.
That game against Hampton taught us nothing -- he faces much harder competition in scrimmages at home. We don’t know how his fitness will react to playing a much better team, or how well his foot will react to playing just two days after his last game. We also don’t know how he will handle the pressure -- as good as he is, he’s still a freshman point guard playing his 10th career game, and this game happens to be the most important he has ever played.
If Irving can contribute 20 minutes or more at a high level then Michigan will have troubles. That’s far from the certainty that people are saying it is, though. Freshmen at least as good as Irving have failed to play their best game in the tournament in the past with far less working against them.
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