The Final Four has been set, and the Michigan Wolverines are back in for the 8th time in their history, and the first time since 2013. Michigan won their only NCAA championship in 1989, and there is reason to believe that 2018 could be their second.
The Starting Five
Two Seniors, two Juniors, and a Sophomore with an average height of 6 feet, 6 inches, charged with the task of ending what has become one of the biggest cinderella stories to ever hit the NCAA tournament, Loyola-Chicago.
It starts on the inside with Mortiz Wagner, a 6-foot 10 Forward from Germany. Wagner is averaging 14.3 points per game this season, and plays big for his size. He plays big for a player listed as a forward takes more three pointers than your average big man, but that doesn’t stop him from scoring in the paint, as he has shot almost twice as much from two has he has from three this year; he will be a big factor against Loyola on Saturday night.
Most of Michigan’s reps at the four spot go to Charles Matthews, a 6-foot 6 Junior from Chicago, listed as a guard. Matthews almost plays as more of a big man than Wagner does, statistically at least, as he shoots just over half the three-point shots that Wagner does at just 2.6 per game, and barely 100 on the season. Matthews does, however, get more assists per game than Wagner. The two complement each other well and it will be fun to watch them work in the Final Four.
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, presumably named for one of the greatest athletes who ever lived, he will be starting at the three for the Wolverines on Saturday night. Rahkman is one of the two seniors who normally starts on this team, and is the second shortest of the starting five at just 6-foot 4, and he is also listed as a guard.
Rahkman is one of three double digit scorers on this team, the other two listed above him. These three are all more hybrid guards than they are actual forwards, and as for your classic 5 spot, there is exactly one player listed at Center, his name is Jon Teske, and he’s played in just two game this year. But Rahkman, who plays the most minutes of anyone on the team, averaging 35 per game, can take over that role if he needs to, which makes his already dangerous three shooting that much worse for opponents.
As for the actual guards on this team, or those who would be considered guards in a traditional lineup, Michigan has Duncan Robinson and Zavier Simpson. The two players are about as different as two guards can be, Simpson is small at just 6 feet tall, and is a floor general with quite a few less points than the other four, but more assists than anyone on the team by a large margin; he likes to move the ball and create for his teammates, exactly what this type of offense needs from a point guard.
If Simpson is the floor general, then Robinson is his right-hand man. Even though he has about 100 less assists on the year than Simpson does, Robinson likes to move the ball around and draw contact, as he is a 90% free throw shooter. The 6-foot 8 senior is a force to be reckoned with off the ball, and Loyola is going to have a tough time with him on Saturday night.
Michigan plays a fast game built on high risk/high reward passing, and when it works, their inside game is nearly unbeatable. When they can’t produce in the paint, they have the consistent advantage of Rahkman from three, since the tournament began, Rahkman has hardly been able to miss from behind the arc, and the same can be said for Matthews.
This is a team that thrives on space, with an NBA-like offense that looks flashy but gets the job done consistently. The Wolverines are so fast at times that the defense can’t follow the ball, and will sometimes put 4 or even 5 smaller hybrid guards on the floor and play below a defense, but maneuver so well around them that they can’t be stopped.
That, however, is how they beat a team built like Purdue, and Loyola-Chicago is not built like Purdue. In the first game of the Final Four Michigan and Loyola are going to be in a high scoring, fast paced shootout in San Antonio. Like most shootouts in the wild west this game will be decided by who comes out quicker on the draw, and this time, that will be the Wolverines.
Why? Because there is one way to beat Michigan’s defense, and that’s size. Loyola has the disadvantage of the biggest player in their starting five being just 6-foot 6, not nearly big enough to overpower the inside physicality that the Wolverines bring to the table. This will force Loyola to work from the outside, which they are good at.
But remember that fast paced offense that Michigan has? It can wear a team down over time, and to this point in the tournament Loyola hasn’t really had to deal with an offense quite like this one. The Ramblers are going to get punched in the mouth to start this game, that’s what Michigan did to Florida State in the Elite Eight, and it’s what they’ll do to Loyola-Chicago in the Final Four.
Michigan coach John Beilein has been here before. This is the second time he has taken a Michigan team to the Final Four in his tenure (2013) and he has a career record of 723-417. Experience, above all else, matters this far into the tournament, and he wins that battle handily.
Loyola head coach Porter Moser will surely get a lot of attention from schools wanting to hire him on Sunday morning, but the attention on Saturday night will not reflect that. Sure, he will be remembered as the Shaka Smart type coach who took a cinderella to the Final Four, but he will go no further. With a career record of 121-110, he simply cannot compete with someone as experienced as Beilein, someone who has been on this stage before, who knows what this is like.
When playing basketball in a packed-out football stadium on the biggest stage that exists in the sport, the pressure will get to people. And when none of your players have ever been on this stage, as is the case for both coaches in this game, having a leader in the locker room who knows what is about to happen, who knows what this stage is like is the biggest advantage a team can have.
Loyola-Chicago, it’s been a good run, but all good things must come to an end. The nets from San Antonio will have a long plane ride back to Ann Arbor on Tuesday morning, but it will be well worth it.
Written by: Shea Payne
Edited by: Colin Castleberry