Michigan has strolled into the Sweet 16 with nary a challenge, beating Wofford and Texas by a combined 31 points. The level of difficulty ramps up considerably tonight as the Wolverines take on Tennessee in Indianapolis. Casual fans may look at the seed matchup – a 2-seed against an 11-seed – and conclude that this will be a cakewalk for Michigan, but that’s nowhere near the truth.
If you were to devise the ideal defense to slow down Michigan’s attack, the end result might look a lot like these Volunteers.
You’d want length on the perimeter to disrupt Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert on the pick and roll; Tennessee uses a plethora of 6-6 defenders.
You’d want a defense that doesn’t give up many open perimeter looks; the Volunteers limited opponents to taking just 27 percent of their shots from three, good for 21st lowest in all of DI.
You’d want a defense that doesn’t attempt to force turnovers, as it probably won’t work against the Wolverines, and the Beilein offense has a tendency to turn aggressive defense into backdoor layups. Tennessee doesn’t bother with forcing turnovers.
Finally, you’d want a defense that keeps things difficult on the interior. SEC opponents have shot only 43 percent on twos against the Volunteers.
Given this profile, I’m fascinated to see how Michigan navigates this Tennessee defense. The closest proxy the Wolverines have faced is probably Wisconsin’s defense, which shares these characteristics but is not as effective overall. The Wolverines fared decently against the Badgers (1.09 points per trip over two games), but that was aided by 45 percent accuracy on the limited threes that Michigan took.
I’m expecting Tennessee’s defense to fare better than that, and just a little better should be enough to pull the upset. Michigan has been held under 1.06 points per possession just nine times this season; the Wolverines are a miserable 2-7 in those contests. If Michigan doesn’t score at a high rate, it loses.
The one matchup that the Wolverines may be able to exploit is at the four, where Glenn Robinson III will often be guarded by a larger, slower player. If Robinson comes out aggressive and either takes his man off the dribble or knocks down open jumpers, Michigan may have better offensive success than I’m forecasting.
On the other end, I’m very concerned with the Wolverines’ ability to keep the Volunteers off the offensive glass. Tennessee has two rebounding behemoths inside, and defensive rebounding has been a relative weakness for Michigan all season. The Volunteers figure to get off lots of shot attempts tonight, which they will need to counteract their mediocre shooting accuracy.
KenPom projects this as a 66-65 Tennessee win, and I feel like the details of the matchup favor the Volunteers. Michigan can win this one with outstanding three-point accuracy (45 percent or better would probably do it), but open looks don’t figure to come easy.
I’ll take Tennessee by five.