Free Press sports writer Nick Baumgardner answers three questions following Michigan’s 76-49 win over Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals:
Can Michigan solve Michigan State?
If we’re all being honest here, Minnesota was simply in the way Saturday.
It felt like Michigan and Michigan State Part III was going to happen this weekend. Not just because Michiganders deserve it after a long winter, but because these two seemed to be the best two teams in the league this season. Now it’s official.
For Michigan, this is a chance to get one back after dropping two disheartening losses to the Spartans — including one for a Big Ten regular-season title last week. Michigan entered this tournament all business, insisting the loss to MSU last week didn’t ruin their mindset. The Wolverines responded by thrashing Iowa on Friday before running Minnesota out of the gym Saturday.
Both performances were vintage March John Beilein. Michigan whipped the ball around the floor with ease on offense, got great looks and took advantage more often than not.
Michigan (28-5) had flashes of this against just about everyone not named Michigan State this season. Now? We’ll see if they can solve it, or be forced to live with three losses in three tries against a rival.
A championship banner is on the line, of course, as Michigan has a chance to become the first team in league history to win the Big Ten tournament three straight times. Bragging rights, all that, are up for grabs, too. But more important, for Michigan, it’s an opportunity to create serious momentum heading into the most important March tournament.
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If that’s going to happen, the Wolverines are going to have to figure out how to score when Xavier Tillman’s on the floor. The Michigan State big man was absolutely critical in each of MSU’s wins over Michigan this season. Cassius Winston is the Big Ten player of the year, he’s outstanding. He’ll get his. But if Michigan can figure out how to get looks off ball-screen action when Tillman’s on the floor, it’ll have a better day.
If it can’t, Sunday might be a pure repeat of the last two meetings between these two.
Is this offensive surge the real deal?
Michigan, once again, looked like a classic Beilein team.
The Wolverines spread the floor, pushed the ball in control when they had opportunities and knocked down open shots. Just like they did Friday night against Iowa.
Neither the Hawkeyes nor Gophers are great defensive clubs, but Michigan just looks more comfortable and confident right now. More than it did, really, at any point during the final 10 games of the regular season.
This looks more like the version of Michigan we saw when the team was in the midst of tearing off 17 straight wins to open the season. A team that locked people down, moved the ball and played with supreme confidence on the offensive end.
Quite simply, if Michigan shoots like this, it has a chance to beat anyone it plays. Michigan finished Saturday 10 of 26 from 3 and got triples from five different players — including four from Isaiah Livers. Zavier Simpson was 3 of 4 from deep, finishing with 15 points and nine assists.
The Wolverines were hovering around 1.4 points per possession midway through the second half after spending most of Friday’s game at 1.3. Those numbers, combined with Michigan’s defensive efforts, will work nearly every time.
What U-M’s NCAA seed situation?
At this point, Michigan seems to have a No. 2 seed locked up regardless of Sunday’s outcome. Michigan State will finish the year with more Quadrant 1 victories and has won the season series between these two.
If any team from the Big Ten has a shot at a No. 1 seed, it’s probably Michigan State. Though both could very well be No. 2 seeds (possibly both in Des Moines as well).
Either way, Michigan did what it needed to in order to secure its spot on the No. 2 line this week in Chicago. Iowa went in the books as a Q1 win, Minnesota didn’t.
Either way, the Wolverines appear to be in good shape seed-wise.