Late in the second half against Clemson, Michigan found itself in an equally exhilarating and uncomfortable position. It was either going to win its first NCAA Tournament game in 11 years or it was going to blow a 16-point second half lead. Leading 58-57 with just 48 seconds to go, Michigan began its most important—and perhaps its final—possession of the season. Clemson had shaven 14 points off its lead in the previous four minutes and forty seconds and was threatening to steal an improbable comeback victory. Manny Harris—fittingly putting the final touches on his one-man show—drove the lane, avoided the charge and picked up the game-clinching “and 1.” That play officially marked Michigan’s return to the big stage. That image will undoubtedly be burned into the collective minds of the Michigan fanbase for eternity which means I can finally get the image of Baron Davis out of my head.
I can’t figure out how Michigan beat Clemson other than the obvious feat of scoring more points. “M” shot 40% from the field and was outrebounded 40-28 including a 21-7 disadvantage on the offensive glass. That last discrepancy accounted for a 16-4 advantage in second chance points in Clemson’s favor. “M” also turned the ball over 14 times including nine in the final 16 minutes. Teams that shoot that poorly from the field, get dominated that substantially on the glass, and turn the ball over that many times rarely win especially against top 25 caliber teams.
The difference between Michigan and Clemson on Thursday night—and more importantly between Michigan now and Michigan two years ago—is coaching. Clemson clearly had a sizeable advantage on the interior. It routinely found its big men being guarded by Zack Novak—Michigan’s freshman guard. Yet, the Tigers kept settling for 3s that clearly weren’t falling. In the regular season, Michigan was beaten by teams that attacked the paint. Ohio St., Wisconsin, and Michigan State are prime examples. Oliver Purnell—bless his heart—obviously did not pick up on this. Despite clear mismatches in the post, Clemson opted for its worst possible gameplan jacking up 22 three-point attempts. That’s where the game was won. Purnell allowed his team to be fooled into changing its style of play. John Beilein did not. Had Clemson come out and asserted itself in the post and used its press to set up the fast break, Michigan would not have won. Beilein tempts teams to play his style of basketball. Clemson—like Duke and UCLA earlier in the season—gave into the temptation. Ironically, Clemson looked a lot like Michigan under Tommy Amaker: talent without direction. It’s nice to be on the opposite side of that for once.
The most encouraging thing about the direction of the program—aside form winning an NCAA Tournament game—is that success has come before the talent. If Beilein can lead a team like this to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, then one can only wonder what he could do with a finished product. Without taking away from the fact that this season has been a smashing success, what does this team actually do well? It doesn’t shoot the three well. It doesn’t rebound well. It doesn’t defend shots well. It doesn’t defend in the post well. DeShawn Sims is the tallest starter at 6’7. It’s two-deep at point guard—C.J. Lee and David Merritt—are/were walk-ons. There’s no question this is a gritty bunch but there’s even less of a question that this team lacks more than it has which makes Michigan’s win over Clemson that much more spectacular. Now, if Beilein can just get some tall, athletic dudes, he’ll make everyone’s life—including his own—much less stressful. He might also want to consider minimizing the number of times Zack Novak defends Blake Griffin on Saturday just in case Oklahoma doesn’t give into temptation.