Match-up: 6 Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. 11 Michigan Wolverines
TV: CBS (Verne Lundquist/Jim Spanarkel/Allie LaForce)
Date and Time: Friday 3/18, 9:40pm EST (approx.)
Location: Barclays Center, Brooklyn, NY
Michigan was one of the last teams in the field, earning a last-four-in at-large bid from the committee and advancing to this round by virtue of their play-in win over Tulsa. Their resume was lacking by virtue of an unimpressive record against the top competition on their schedule (just 4-12 against the RPI top 100 - although now that's 5-12 after the Tulsa win), although they avoided the bad loss (Ohio State and SMU were their only losses to non-tournament teams). Best wins are an early one against Texas, the dramatic B1G tourney victory over Indiana that likely gave them a bid, and home wins over Maryland and Purdue.
The Wolverines were generally hovering in the same territory as Notre Dame in KenPom's rankings most of the season, but more recent weeks without star Caris LeVert have seen them falter much further than the Irish, and they now sit at 54th overall. They are similar to Notre Dame, as expected from a John Beilein team, offensve-heavy but not nearly the same on defense.
Their offense is certainly not as strong as Notre Dame's (35th compared to 10th) but their defense is rated much better (108th vs. 172nd). I think most look at this match-up on paper and think offensive fireworks, but the slow pace and recent struggles from the field by both teams may disappoint those expecting a show.
That all said, Notre Dame fans are concerned about the way their team is trending, and Michigan's trend isn't nearly as bad. Since 2/20 (the Georgia Tech game in which Notre Dame's struggles began), Michigan has gone 4-4 (to Notre Dame's 3-4) but they only got dominated once, playing their third game in three days. Notre Dame's recent picture is a much uglier one, especially the last time we saw them in D.C. It's tough to look at the box scores from the last 3-4 weeks and see much of an advantage for Notre Dame, despite the overall numbers.
G Derrick Walton Jr.
G Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman
G Zak Irvin
F Duncan Robinson
C Mark Donnal
G Aubrey Dawkins
G Kameron Chatman
F Ricky Doyle
F Moritz Wagner
First, though I have four guys listed, the Michigan bench does not play very many minutes. Only Doyle and Dawkins are really regular contributors, with Wagner occasionally logging a solid amount of minutes. I only listed Chatman here because of his game-winning shot over Indiana, but he plays very, very sparingly.
Michigan's lineup is typically a four-around-one, with lanky forward Duncan Robinson mostly being a long-range shooter. Mark Donnal, the Wolverines lone starting post player, is quite a bit like Duke's Marshall Plumlee, in there to stand tall against opposing bigs and sell out on the boards. There is not a lot of offense run through him (just 5 FGA per game), and he has been prone to foul trouble in recent weeks, limiting his minutes. Wagner has been the primary beneficiary, but there just is not a real low-post threat on this team right now.
Instead, the Wolverines get their offense through good guard play, led by Walton and Irvin, especially since Caris LeVert went out. You'd have to imagine that Irvin gets acquainted with Steve Vasturia for much of this one on the offensive end. Irvin has had some rough games shooting of late but played very well against Tulsa on Wednesday night.
I think one of the most interesting factors will be the role of Duncan Robinson. Will Mike Brey use both Bonzie Colson and Zach Auguste together for a lot of minutes? If that's the case, one of them is going to have to work hard to keep Robinson from having too many open looks from three (he's a 45% 3pt shooter). Or, does he find a way to have V.J. Beachem, who makes a lot more sense physically, match up with Robinson most of the evening? Tough balance between exploiting your interior advantage and making sure you're matched up well defensively.
This one looks like a toss-up. The most favorable projection for Notre Dame I've seen is from FiveThirtyEight, which gives the Irish a 66% chance of winning. That seems mighty generous given most of Notre Dame's recent performances, and the 55% from KenPom seems a lot more realistic. There may be some fatigue or "just happy to have made it" factors with the Wolverines, but it seems equally likely that rust or pressure gets the best of the Irish.
Notre Dame's athleticism, post presence, and big-time experience make them a very tempting pick even from an objective standpoint. But if Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia are unable to regain any semblance of their shooting form (they are 33% and 31% from the field, respectively, since the Louisville game), then Notre Dame will be counting on some major contributions from elsewhere to win this one.
There is also the pesky fact that the Irish keep allowing teams to shoot among their season-best from distance, and Michigan - especially Robinson - seems liable to go off and really put the pressure on Notre Dame's offense to return to its form as one of the best - if not the best - in the country.
I suppose that's ultimately what Notre Dame fans are hoping for. That this is the week the team went back to the drawing board, got after it in practice, and comes out Friday night looking like the outfit that was on track to potentially set some offensive efficiency records in the KenPom era. We haven't seen that team since February 13th against Louisville, save for a terrific stretch in the second half against Duke in the ACC Tournament, but it's mostly just been them spinning their wheels (up-tempo? deeper bench? shoot more threes? keep forcing it inside?) looking for offensive answers.
I just can't count on this sudden resurgence. I'm having nightmares of the team I've watched these last few weeks and those from a few years ago when Iowa State dominated the Irish after Notre Dame sat around all first round, seemingly getting in their own heads before the ball was even tipped. The team's collective psyche seems similarly hurting and, of course, has all Thursday and Friday to think about it.
That all said, I'm not sure I see Michigan as the team with the offensive fireworks to really pour it on the Irish, either, so I think it might just be an ugly one on both sides. A close, unimpressive first half will give way to a Michigan run in the second. Can Zach Auguste carry this team on his back behind another impassioned performance? That might be Notre Dame's biggest hope. Auguste and Colson keep it close for the final minutes, but then, as we know, it's all guard-play. Michigan's showed they can handle it Wednesday night. Notre Dame's? Here's hoping. I'll still take Demetrius Jackson in that show-down to emerge victorious.
Notre Dame 65