Sweet 16 preview: No. 3 Oregon vs. No. 7 Michigan
Michigan has authored the most compelling story in the nation this March. It began down the stretch, as Michigan won six of its last eight regular-season games. Then, as the team was prepping to go to Washington, D.C., for the Big Ten tourney, the club’s plane careened off the runway and crashed. John Beilein let the players decide if they still wanted to fly the next day or just forfeit. The team opted to fly, arriving the day of its opening game vs. Illinois.
No. 8 Michigan proceeded to win four games in four days to claim the Big Ten tourney crown. And the party hasn’t stopped, as the Wolverines are now in the Sweet 16 for the third time in five years. Hard to believe that in early February, Michigan had lost five of eight games and was 14-9 overall and 4-6 in the Big Ten.
Now, this squad is thinking big in an out-of-the-blue run similar to the one the 1989 team made to the national championship behind interim coach Steve Fisher and Glen Rice. Can this team go all the way like that one? Perhaps. This is a skilled team led by point man Derrick Walton Jr., and Zak Irvin is playing the best ball of his career. And 6-10 D.J. Wilson and 6-11 Moritz Wagner are matchup nightmares who can take over a game.
Beilein guided Michigan to the title game in 2013, falling to Louisville. Don’t be shocked if the Wolverines at least reach the Elite Eight, where they would play the winner of No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 4 Purdue, a team Michigan beat twice this season including in OT in the Big Ten tourney.
No. 3 Oregon (31-5) vs. No. 7 Michigan (26-11), Thursday, Kansas City, Midwest
John Beilein NCAA record: 19-10, one NCAA runner-up (2013)
Last Sweet 16 appearance: 2014, lost to Kentucky in Elite Eight
Key player: Derrick Walton Jr. The senior is the catalyst for the surging Wolverines, who have won 12 of their last 14 games. Walton does it all, scoring, assisting and rebounding. And he’s also a great leader who is tough. He never fails to impact a game in some fashion, averaging 15.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.9 assists.
Key number: +3.6, Michigan’s turnover margin. That ranks No. 1 in the Big Ten. The Wolverines commit a league-low 9.2 turnovers per game while their foes average 12.8. Michigan also is an excellent shooting team, ranking first in field-goal percentage (48.4) and free-throw percentage (77.6).
Know Oregon: The Ducks have one of the Pac-12’s most consistent programs, making their fifth consecutive NCAA trip after tying Arizona for the league regular-season title and losing to the Wildcats in the Pac-12 tourney championship tilt. Last season, Oregon lost in the Elite Eight to Oklahoma. The Ducks also came within a game of the Final Four in 2007 and 2002. This could be the year the program finally breaks through to college basketball’s holy land for the first time since winning the NCAA’s first national title in 1939. In his seventh season in Eugene, Dana Altman has Oregon humming. After a 2-2 beginning this season, the Ducks ripped off 17 consecutive victories. In fact, they have won 29 of 32 entering the Sweet 16. This is a talented offensive club with five players who average in double-figures. The unquestioned star is Dillon Brooks, a 6-7 junior who averages a team-high 16.4 points and was Pac-12 Player of the Year. Jordan Bell (8.3 rpg) cleans the glass and was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, a 6-9 junior enforcer. But UO lost a key cog when Chris Boucher suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Pac-12 tourney. He was a good rebounder and shot blocker, a big reason why Oregon is No. 2 in the country in blocks (6.5 pg).