The 8/9 matchups are supposed to be the most competitive games on the board, and when you see 20-13 Michigan vs. 19-14 Tennessee competitive is what you expect. The Vols are a mystery: a beautiful win at Pittsburgh, an atrocious loss at Charlotte (in the same arena we'll see Friday), and all points between. But unlike Tennessee's year-long roller coaster, Michigan has seen one big dip and one big rise: a 1-6 start in the Big 10 led to a 9-4 finish. In their last ten games the Wolverines are 7-3 with a two point loss at 9 seed Illinois, a one point loss to 4 seed Wisconsin, and a seven point loss to number one overall seed Ohio State. Each of those final ten games have been decided by less than ten points. Michigan played twelve games decided by five points or less and split them; the Vols played thirteen and went 6-7. So a competitive game won't be anything new.
What will be new is the entire tournament experience for Michigan's underclassmen, including their top three scorers. UM last danced in 2009, where they won one game as a 10 seed before being bounced by Blake Griffin and Oklahoma in the second round. But before that, Michigan's last tournament appearance was 1998. And with so many young players on a team that wasn't expected to be dancing so soon, the Wolverines should be happy just to be here.
On the other hand this is six in a row for Tennessee, a school record. It's new for Tobias Harris, as well as Trae Golden and John Fields, but almost everyone who will play meaningful minutes in this game played in the Elite Eight last year. So overall experience goes to Tennessee...but Michigan runs both an offense and a defense that the Vols really haven't seen, so it's yet to be determined how much experience will really be worth on Friday.
Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams the Vols have played in three 8/9 games. Jerry Green got the Vols back in the field for the first time in nine years in 1998, where the 8 seed Vols lost to Kevin Stallings' 9 seed Illinois State 82-81 in overtime. In Green's final game, a Tennessee team similar to this one (started 16-1 and ranked 4th, finished 22-11 with Green out of a job) lost to Charlotte in the 8/9 70-63. And two years ago, the 9 seed Vols lost at the buzzer to 8 seed Oklahoma State.
All the talk about what the Vols might do against a 1 seed in the second round has always been just that. If this Tennessee team wants to see what it's got against Duke, they're going to have to get past Michigan first.
How do we do that? Here are five keys to a Tennessee victory:
1. Dance with the one that brung ya: REBOUND
Bruce Pearl has often said that a team should reflect its seniors, and while the Vols' two best players are a junior and a freshman, the seniors on this team are best at rebounding and defense. Tennessee is 12th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage and 34th overall in rebounds per game. The Wolverines play a slower pace (more on that in a second) which is part of the reason they're only 255th nationally in rebounds per game, but Michigan is 327th (out of 345) nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, which has nothing to do with pace. Michigan gets the rebound on only 25.9% of their shots (the lowest percentage of ANY tournament team); the Vols get the rebound on 37.9% of their shots.
One of the obvious differences between the two teams will be size: Michigan starts four guys between 6'3" and 6'5", with freshman Jordan Morgan at 6'8". Zack Novak will play bigger than his 6'4", and many of the perimeter players can still bother Tennessee with length, but the Vols will still have a massive size advantage they have to take advantage of.
An additional concern here is the spacing and efficiency of Michigan's offense putting UT's rebounders out-of-position and in spots they're not used to being in, thus giving away cheap rebounds. We've already seen Tennessee give away an inside advantage against a team considered to struggle with interior toughness (Kentucky at Rupp) - Mike Griffith wrote Tuesday that this game will test Tennessee's basketball IQ like nothing they've seen before this year, and we cannot allow that to take away our advantage on the glass.
2. Don't settle against the 1-3-1
One of the reasons the 2009 Tennessee team was so frustrating is because they kept doing the same stupid thing and expecting different results. Those Vols were the worst three point shooting team in the tournament field. But screw that, we'll jack 33 of them against Oklahoma State.
These Vols are the worst three point shooting team in the history of the program - a robust 30.4%, with only Scotty Hopson (37.7%) hitting more than a third of the time - but they're frustrating because they're inconsistent, not stupid. Tennessee has shown good discipline against teams that know we can't shoot threes and sit back in zone and invite us to do so anyway. Most notably, the Vols took only 9 of them in the regular season finale against Kentucky, a strategy that gave us a chance to win.
We'll get different looks against a 1-3-1 than we would a 2-3, but they'll still be there. Michigan hasn't used the 1-3-1 as much recently, but against a team that shoots so poorly from the outside I think we're all assuming John Beilein will roll it out early and often.
Rather than hoping one or more non-Hopson Vols suddenly comes to life from beyond the arc, Tennessee will be far better off beating the zone with good ball movement, working to get it inside and use our size to our advantage. This also means Tennessee's post players have to finish at the rim, something most of them have struggled with at various times this year. But even if we don't, just getting it in there will allow our rebounding advantage to go to work, instead of rolling the dice from beyond the arc. Don't hope to be hot. Be patient, be poised, and execute the offense.
3. Defend without fouling
I know, right?
We made the tournament and we're moving on, but let's just say SEC refs did not care for the Vols: after living and living well at the free throw line in the non-conference, the Vols and the refs frequently put the opposition on the line in conference play. But Michigan has the unique distinction of being dead last among tournament teams in not just one, but two of the Four Factors: the Wolverines are 339th nationally in free throw rate.
This is not a team that's used to getting a significant percentage of their points at the line. The Vols need to make sure that doesn't change on Friday. If/when calls go against us early, stay poised - we don't want to be the team that's acting like every whistle against us is the worst injustice in the history of earth. Michigan also shoots a ton of threes - it's going to be awfully tempting for us to foul a three point shooter. Please don't. Please.
Where the Wolverines excel is in not turning it over: 14th nationally in turnover percentage, giving it away on just 16.7% of their possessions. Good teams like Ohio State have hurt them with ball pressure, and the Vols are at their best when they're the aggressor on defense, but we can't get overly aggressive against their offense, and if it's a tight whistle we can really give them points they're not used to getting if we're not smart.
Where this is especially important is in the game's most important matchup:
We mentioned this on the podcast last night, but it's a fascinating stat: Michigan is 330th nationally in possessions per game at 62.6 (the Vols average 67.7), so all of their offensive numbers are going to be down because of fewer opportunities. However, their point guard Darius Morris not only leads the team in scoring at 15.2 ppg, but averages 6.7 assists per game. That's fifth in the nation in assists per game on a team that is 330th in the nation in possessions per game. That's amazing.
Morris is a big guard at 6'4", but Melvin Goins is a big boy. Morris is the creator for the Wolverines offense, with his penetration as the spark. Goins has been a solid defender all season, leading the SEC with 1.75 steals per game. Even if he can't turn Morris over, his pressure can take the Wolverines out of their rhythm and help create fewer opportunities for guys like Tim Hardaway Jr.
If Melvin gets in foul trouble the way he did some down the stretch, I fear the consequences with Trae Golden or Skylar McBee trying to slow Morris down. Goins can really help us or really hurt us here.
5. Everybody Contributes
Are the Vols good enough to beat Michigan with Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris? Maybe, but that act gets blown out by Duke, so let's go ahead and set it aside now.
The Vols have been much more balanced in their last three games, even though we only won one of them (with losses to Kentucky and Florida). Not only will the Vols need Goins' defense on Morris, they'll need all the post players to own the glass. Our best basketball will always involve all of our guys doing their thing: John Fields blocking shots, Skylar McBee knocking down shots, Steven Pearl making everyone on the floor better, etc.
It'll take a complete team effort and great communication to keep Michigan from shooting a high percentage, and it'll take the same thing on the other end of the floor to bust up the 1-3-1.
The Vols have enough talented players to beat any team in the tournament, but are we a good enough team to beat Michigan? If we have a number of no shows, have to rely on Hopson and Harris for all of our points, and have major defensive breakdowns, our season will likely be over.
But if everybody contributes, Tennessee wins.
Do you like stats? Check out the complete Tennessee-Michigan breakdown from StatSheet.com.