INDIANAPOLIS — Here are three thoughts from No. 7 seed Michigan’s 92–91 victory over No. 10 seed Oklahoma State on Friday afternoon.
1) The basketball ethoses of No. 10 Michigan and No. 7 Oklahoma State are diametrically opposed. The Wolverines move the ball with balletic grace around the perimeter, cut with élan and use that movement to create open three-point looks. The Cowboys’ offensive gameplan revolves around speed and dribble penetration, with guards bull-rushing the basket with abandon.
The clashing styles yielded a wildly entertaining game here on Friday afternoon, one of the most riveting so far in the NCAA tournament. Michigan just kept on shooting and making shots, and it needed every one of them to hold off the Cowboys.
Oklahoma State point guard Jawun Evans swished a three-pointer to cut the final margin to one point. Michigan big man D.J. Wilson iced the game for Michigan by hitting both of his free throws with 3 seconds remaining. The Wolverines hit an amazing 11-of-15 three-pointers in the second half, a sizzling 73%. Overall, the Wolverines hit 16-of-29 from deep. In a tenor familiar to Big 12 football fans, Michigan just ended up outscoring the Cowboys. And as Evans showed them with the final of his 23 points, they needed every one.
2) Michigan guard Derrick Walton Jr. is playing as well as any guard in the country, and his resplendent performance in the Big Ten Tournament carried over into the NCAAs. He finished with 26 points on 7-for-13 shooting, following up on being named the Most Outstanding Player of the Big Ten Tournament. His final field goal of the game appeared to seal the victory for Michigan, as he rolled in a 17-foot jumper that gave Michigan a 86-79 lead with 52.6 seconds remaining. That should have cemented the game for the Wolverines, but Duncan Robinson—an 82% shooter from the free-throw line—missed two front ends of one-and-ones to invite the Cowboys back into the game.
When the Cowboys cut the Michigan lead to 88–86 with 10 seconds remaining, Walton Jr. calmly drained both to make it a four-point game. In his last three games, Walton Jr. is averaging more than 25 points per game, including a 29-point blitzing of Minnesota in the Big Ten semifinals. He hit 6-for-9 from three-point range on Friday, part of the Wolverines’ symphonic blitz.
3) Michigan just went through one of the most emotional and inspiring weeks in recent college basketball history. Their plane slid off the runway in attempting to fly to the Big Ten Tournament. They rode the adrenaline and emotion of that scary experience to shock the field and win the Big Ten Tournament as the No. 8 seed. That cosmic run took them from the cusp of the tourney bubble to a No. 7 seed. The Wolverines showed some signs early on Friday of struggling to regain the urgency and grit they carried to win those four games in four days in Washington D.C.
The biggest test of their momentum will come when they play the winner of No. 15 Jacksonville State and No. 2 Louisville. If the Wolverines face the Cardinals, they’ll need to guard better than they did against Oklahoma State, which had wide-open shots all day and finished shooting 54.7%. But it’s hard to quantify momentum, and it’s clear that few teams remaining in the tournament have more than the Wolverines right now.