INDIANAPOLIS — No. 7 seed Michigan won its seventh consecutive game and is beginning to feel like a team of destiny after toppling No. 2 seed Louisville, 73–69, on Sunday. The Wolverines won four straight in the Big Ten tournament last week after a plane accident shook the team. They entered the NCAA tournament as perhaps the most intriguing team in the field, and have now outlasted both No. 10 seed Oklahoma State and the No. 2 seed Cardinals here to reach the Sweet 16. This is Michigan’s first appearance in the second weekend since 2014, when it lost to Kentucky in the Regional Final. The Wolverines will face the winner of No. 11 seed Rhode Island and No. 3 seed Oregon in Kansas City this week. Here are three thoughts on Michigan’s victory:
1) In its eagerness to slow down sizzling Michigan star Derrick Walton Jr., Louisville opened the door for the best game of sophomore forward Moritz Wagner’s career. He finished 11-for-14 for 26 points, thanks in large part to the Cardinals’ decision to switch everything on defense to contain Walton Jr. That left the 6’11’’ Wagner with mismatches all day, allowing him to surpass his career high of 24 points against Purdue earlier this year. Wagner topped that figure with an up-fake that left Louisville’s Mangok Mathiang in the dust and drove to the basket for an easy layup with just over a minute remaining that gave Michigan a 67-61 lead. From that point on, the Wolverines made their free throws down the stretch and handled the Cardinals’ press well enough to hold on for the W.
2) Louisville coach Rick Pitino famously cast this Michigan team as a collegiate version of the “Golden State Warriors” after the Wolverines hit 11-of-15 three-pointers in the second half against Oklahoma State on Friday afternoon. The focus of the Cardinals’ scouting report was to run at the Wolverines on the three-point line, which ended up effective as Michigan started the game just 4-for-14 from 3-point range through the first 33 minutes. But the Wolverines yet again found a different way to win, much like they did in running through the Big Ten Tournament. Michigan finished the game 6-for-17 from deep, including a trey by Walton Jr. with 5:55 remaining to break out of his slump. Credit the Wolverines, which have shown versatility and the capacity to shift their identity against different teams. This is one of John Beilein’s most masterful coaching jobs in a career filled with them, as he’s navigated the emotion of the plane accident and the challenge of a variety of opponents with different styles.
3) Walton Jr. has emerged as one of the best players in college basketball over the past six weeks. He carried the Wolverines to the NCAA tournament as a No. 8 seed last week, and in the three games heading into Sunday, he’d averaged more than 25 points per contest, a 10-point improvement off his season average. But on Sunday, Louisville’s defense vanquished Walton Jr., as he shot 1-for-8 in the first half and finished the game 3-for-13 with 10 points. (Notably, he did have six assists and no turnovers, meaning that he exploited the defensive heat on him despite not shooting well.) Louisville guarded Walton Jr. with several players—notably Penn graduate transfer Tony Hicks in the second half. Credit much of Louisville’s success to switching screens.