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4 X-factors for Michigan basketball in battle for Final Four spot vs. Florida State

Wolverines battle Seminoles in West Region's Elite 8 game

Zavier Simpson has become the leader of Michigan's elite defense. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Zavier Simpson has become the leader of Michigan's elite defense. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES – College basketball fans have seen two very different Michigan teams this month: one that's good enough to win a national championship and one that nearly didn't make out of the NCAA Tournament's first weekend.

The dominant Wolverines -- the same ones that rolled through the Big Ten Tournament three weeks ago -- showed up for the Sweet 16 on Thursday, crushing No. 7 seed Texas A&M by 27 points. It was a welcome sign for John Beilein after a pair of sloppy games in the first two rounds.

READHow can Michigan basketball get past Florida State and into the Final Four?

Now, a matchup with No. 9 seed Florida State stands in Michigan's way, with a trip to the Final Four on the line. Here are four factors that could decide Michigan's fate.

Florida State's size at guard

Florida State's greatest advantage heading into the game is its size, especially in the back court. Head coach Leonard Hamilton has three guards in his starting lineup and two will have a height advantage.

Florida State guard Terance Mann. (Harry How/Getty Images)
Florida State guard Terance Mann. (Harry How/Getty Images)

Zavier Simpson is Michigan's best defensive player, and he set the tone against Texas A&M point guard T.J. Starks. The Aggies never got comfortable because of Simpson's perimeter pressure, and an offense that dropped 86 points on the defending national champion North Carolina Tarheels was held to 72.

In the Elite 8, Simpson will likely match up with C.J. Walker, who is about the same size as Starks, and will have a couple of inches on Simpson. That wasn't a problem Thursday, and it will be critical for Simpson to pester Walker.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman will also be matched up with a bigger guard -- either Terance Mann or Braian Angola. Abdur-Rahkman is a solid defender, but the two 6-foot-6 guards will be challenge because they're athletic and they love to run.

If Michigan can handle the back court size, it should be in good shape.

Avoiding turnovers

Florida State is in the Elite 8 for a variety of reasons, but none are more important than its ability to force turnovers.

In the comeback win over Xavier, the Seminoles were stagnant on offense until they started forcing turnovers that sparked fast-break points. By the time the final buzzer blared, FSU had forced 18 turnovers.

Florida State dominated Gonzaga in the Sweet 16, forcing 13 turnovers and running the Bulldogs out of the gym.

Michigan is a tough team to turn over, ranking No. 2 in the nation with 9.2 per game. Its two primary ball handlers, Abdur-Rahkman and Simpson, average only two combined turnovers per game, so Florida State shouldn't have as many opportunities to run.

Charles Matthews, the closer

During nonconference play, Charles Matthews looked like Michigan's best all-around player, scoring at least 20 points in five games.

But when the Big Ten season started, Matthews struggled, never scoring more than 16 points and turning the ball over much more frequently. Matthews was clearly forcing too often, and when he did get to the rim, he missed layups he'd normally finish.

Charles Matthews took over in the second half vs. Texas A&M. (Harry How/Getty Images)
Charles Matthews took over in the second half vs. Texas A&M. (Harry How/Getty Images)

In the win over Texas A&M, Matthews fit into his role perfectly. He wasn't the primary offensive option or even the secondary option. But when his teammates got hot from beyond the arc and Moritz Wagner demanded attention inside, he took advantage of one-on-one matchups and got to the rim.

He finished the game with 18 points on 8-11 shooting, his best game since Dec. 21. Matthews let the game come to him, and when it was time to put the Aggies away, he did so, driving for dagger after dagger to foil A&M's comeback attempt.

Matthews is still working on his outside shot and he's not as strong going to the left, so Michigan's offense stalls when he tries to do too much on his own. But when the ball is moving and Matthews ends up with a mismatch, he can get to the rim and finish.

Wagner's matchup

Wagner has been an X-factor in almost every game Michigan played this season, and Saturday will be no different.

When Wagner is knocking down shots, Michigan is basically impossible to stop. He knocked down a couple of early 3-pointers against Texas A&M, and it was a beat down from there.

Moritz Wagner played one of his best games in Michigan's win over Michigan State in East Lansing. (Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)
Moritz Wagner played one of his best games in Michigan's win over Michigan State in East Lansing. (Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

Wagner was excellent in Michigan's biggest regular-season win at Michigan State, scoring 27 points. He also took home Big Ten Tournament MVP honors when the Wolverines won the conference title.

On the other hand, Wagner struggled during the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, and Michigan didn't look as good against Montana and Houston.

Teams without athletic big men struggle against Wagner, because he's comfortable on the perimeter despite being 6-foot-11. A&M didn't have a player who could stick with Wagner, and that was the beginning of the end.

Florida State has an embarrassment of riches in terms of athleticism, so Hamilton can choose to stick one of his giants, such as 7-foot-4 center Christ Koumadje, on Wagner, or go with a smaller lineup and rely on a forward.


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