- Michigan and Texas Tech didn't get the credit they deserved heading into the season, but now they meet with a trip to the Elite Eight on the line as owners of the nation's two best defenses.
Knowing what we have come to know about Michigan basketball, the message Ignas Brazdeikis got from assistant coach Luke Yaklich before his arrival should be no surprise. If you are not ready to play defense, you’re not going to play. If the Wolverines have an offensive specialist on the roster, it’s the versatile freshman forward, but he’s received a crash course within Michigan’s scheme dating back to the summertime. Nobody is exempt. It’s simple enough: Stops lead to easy baskets. Focus and attention to personnel lead to stops. “We prepare so much, we watch so much film that it feels like we have to play good,” Brazdeikis says. “There’s no choice.”
In Thursday night’s Sweet 16 pairing between Michigan and Texas Tech, that mentality will cut both ways. According to kenpom.com data, Texas Tech has the nation’s top-rated defense with an adjusted efficiency of 85.5. Michigan sits a shred behind at 86.0. Both teams have six losses, neither got enough credit entering the year (Michigan opened at No. 19 in the AP Poll; Texas Tech was unranked), and now, they’re two wins away from the Final Four.
While they’re not mirror images, the prospect of a game played at a favorable pace for both sides portends a tight, balanced contest. “It’s kind of like, good defensive teams know how other good defensive teams think,” Michigan forward Isaiah Livers told Sports Illustrated after Saturday’s win over Florida. “You can kind of figure that out offensively, try to find that flow … by having a great defense ourselves, we know how we would approach it.”
“I can’t tell you how many times we have talked the last three years about Michigan basketball with our guys,” Texas Tech coach Chris Beard admitted at the podium Wednesday, offering praise for the Wolverines and John Beilein. “Whether it be the defense, one of the best defensive teams in college basketball, we strive to be in that conversation.”
At a glance, Texas Tech plays heavier ball pressure, and is more aggressive forcing turnovers and switching screens due to its smaller frontcourt—while do-everything guard Jarrett Culver plays on the ball a lot, at 6'6" he’s often the Red Raiders’ fourth-tallest player on the floor. Tariq Owens and Norense Odiase give Tech a pair of useful interior defenders, but Culver and Matt Mooney will push up high and try to keep opponents uncomfortable outside. Running Jordan Poole off the line and slowing Michigan’s top three-point shooter will be pivotal.
“What scares me about Michigan? Everything,” Beard said. “Starts with their Hall of Fame coach, simply stated this team doesn’t beat themselves. If you’re going to beat Michigan, you have to score more points than them. We will have to play our cleanest game of the year, our best 40 minutes.”
The Wolverines deploy two distinct defensive looks: big lineups where they can funnel everything toward 7'1" Jon Teske at the rim, and the small-ball pairing of Brazdeikis and Livers, with which they prefer to switch on the perimeter. Because both are consistent threats spotting up outside, they can also go super-big and three-point heavy with Brazdeikis, Livers and Teske together. Poole, Zavier Simpson and Charles Matthews are all above average on the perimeter.
“We know we can hang our hat on the defensive side of the ball. If we're not making shots, we know the other team [still] isn’t going to score,” says Teske. “We’ll keep it close, and even if they do make a run, it’s just a couple baskets.”
Michigan is the favorite, but there are no illusions about how evenly the teams are matched on paper. If you’re in search of showtime, watch something else. This one is shaping up as a game where every possession matters, with potential for the sort of back-and-forth that can cement a game as a classic. Some might see a rock fight, others might see rock, paper, scissors. Regardless, you’re likely to get a good one.