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13 early thoughts about No. 1 Michigan basketball’s NCAA Tournament region

Michigan has difficult region as fourth No. 1 seed

The Michigan bench reacts after a play during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Michigan State, Thursday, March 4, 2021, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
The Michigan bench reacts after a play during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Michigan State, Thursday, March 4, 2021, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

INDIANAPOLIS – The Michigan basketball team earned a No. 1 seed in this season’s NCAA Tournament after going 20-4 and winning the regular season Big Ten championship.

On Sunday, the entire bracket was revealed, with 31 conference champions and 37 at-large selections making the field.

Here are my initial thoughts about the East Region, which will be a difficult road to the Final Four for the Wolverines.

Earning No. 1 seed

First of all, it’s an incredible accomplishment for Juwan Howard and this Michigan team to be on the No. 1 line at all.

Entering the season, the Wolverines were expected to be a fringe top 25 team and in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten. To lose just four times in the deepest league in the nation was unexpected and impressive.

Michigan head coach Juwan Howard directs his team as they played Maryland in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at the Big Ten Conference tournament in Indianapolis, Friday, March 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

This is the first time Michigan has earned a No. 1 seed since Howard’s playing days. While Michigan made two Final Four runs and five trips to the Sweet 16 under John Beilein, it only earned one No. 2 seed.

None of that matters now, though, as Michigan will have to earn every victory, just like any other seed in the field.

Popular upset pick

Considering the way Michigan finished the season, it’s no surprise the Wolverines are a popular early upset pick according to many analysts.

During the Selection Show on CBS and ensuing bracketology on ESPN, No. 1 seeds Gonzaga, Baylor and Illinois were mainstays in the Final Four, while Michigan was nowhere to be found.

That’s because over the past two weeks, Michigan has limped into the tournament, both literally and figuratively. On the court, it has lost three of its last five games, and even the two wins didn’t look like the complete performances we’ve grown accustomed to with this group.

More importantly, though, the injury bug has devastated Michigan at the worst possible time. After getting Eli Brooks back for the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan lost its senior captain and best shooter, Isaiah Livers, to a stress injury that will keep him out indefinitely.

While Livers said he’s going to fight to get back, there’s no guarantee he’ll suit up for the Wolverines again. That’s a massive loss on both ends of the court, and will test Michigan’s depth.

No. 16 seeds

Since Virginia became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed three years ago, there’s always a little anxiety for the teams on the top line.

The way I look at it, Michigan got some good news and some bad news regarding its first-round matchup.

On one hand, Mount St. Mary’s and Texas Southern are the two lowest-rated teams in the entire field, according to Kenpom. Mount St. Mary’s is No. 219 and Texas Southern is No. 229 in that metric.

But Thursday’s First Four will give whichever team wins that matchup a chance to get its footing in the tournament. By the time it takes the floor against Michigan, it will already have a win under its belt and should hit the ground running.

As a No. 1 seed, Michigan should have a major advantage, but you can never say never in the NCAA Tournament.

Possible LSU matchup

If Michigan gets past the first round, it will match up with either No. 8 LSU or No. 9 St. Bonaventure. Right off the bat, LSU feels like a tricky road block between the Wolverines and the second weekend.

LSU has four players averaging in double figures: Cameron Thomas, Trendon Watford, Ja’Vonte Smart and Darius Days. Their size at the wing positions and ability to get to the basket will test a part of Michigan’s defense that quietly struggled late in the season.

While the Tigers’ defense struggled and gave up a ton of open looks from the perimeter this season, if Michigan has another cold shooting night, like it did in the Big Ten Tournament, this matchup could signal an early exit.

Florida State a major roadblock

Remember Michigan’s run to the national championship game in 2018? To get to the Final Four that season, the No. 3 Wolverines had to survive a dogfight with No. 8 seed Florida State in the regional final.

Just like that season, Leonard Hamilton has a deep bench full of shooters and length. The Seminoles like to get up and down the floor, and when they get on a scoring run, there’s not much anyone can do to slow them down.

The reason Florida State is a No. 4 seed is because there were some games this season when it simply didn’t look all that interested in competing on the defensive end. But that’s not likely to be an issue in a potential Sweet 16 game, so Michigan would get Florida State’s best punch if these teams do meet.

Don’t forget about Colorado

Pretty much everyone will be looking at Florida State as a sleeper in this region, but don’t completely discount Colorado.

As someone who watched more Pac-12 After Dark than I care to admit this season -- often hoping I could just get a couple hours of Bill Walton on the call -- Colorado stood out as the most consistent team in that conference.

Before a loss to Oregon State in the Pac-12 title game, Colorado had ripped off six wins in a row, including two against USC and one against UCLA.

Colorado beat every team in the Pac-12 at least once this season, so it’s no layup for the Seminoles in the second round.

Texas a Final Four favorite?

The Big Ten was the deepest conference in the country this season, but there’s an argument to be made that the Big 12 has more Final Four contenders.

Six of the seven Big 12 teams that made the field received a No. 6 seed or better, with No. 8 seed Oklahoma the only exception. Any of those teams could make a run deep into March.

Early in the season, all the talk about the Big 12 centered around Baylor. Lately, it’s been all about Cade Cunningham and Oklahoma State.

But it was Texas that came out of the Big 12 Tournament as a champion, and the Longhorns quietly earned a No. 3 seed and a very favorable draw into the Sweet 16.

Florida State and Alabama are hot names for the Final Four right now, but Texas battled through some of the best teams in the nation this year and could be the favorite to win the East Region.

Double banner Bama

Of all the teams in college basketball’s six major conferences, only one pulled off the difficult feat of winning both the regular season and conference tournament titles. That was Alabama in the SEC.

Three major conferences had shocking upsets in their tournaments, with Oregon State winning the Pac-12, Georgetown winning the Big East and Georgia Tech winning the ACC.

But Alabama, which breezed through its conference slate with a 16-2 record, had no trouble winning three games in three days and taking home a second banner.

If not for Michigan’s gaudy record in such a difficult Big Ten, Alabama would be a No. 1 seed. But that doesn’t really matter at this point, as the Tide will be a difficult out in the region either way.

Pipe dream: Howard vs. Turgeon

There’s no chance this will happen, but how hilarious would it be if Mark Turgeon had to coach against Howard and Michigan for a fourth time this season?

Turgeon decided to stand up to Howard during their Big Ten Tournament game because he knew it would be the last time the two teams met this season. But now that they’re both in the East Region, it would only take three wins apiece for them to meet up in the Elite Eight.

Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon sits on the bench as his team plays against Michigan State in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at the Big Ten Conference tournament in Indianapolis, Thursday, March 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Is Maryland going to storm through the likes of Alabama and Texas to get to that point? Not likely. Michigan is no guarantee to get to that round, either.

But considering Michigan already trounced Maryland by double digits three times, and Turgeon finally couldn’t take it anymore, a fourth meeting would be must-see TV.

Great individual performers

The East Region has a handful of players that jumped out at me right from the start.

McKinley Wright has been a star for Colorado since he stepped on campus, averaging between 14 and 15.5 points per game all four seasons.

This year, as a senior, Wright is scoring 15.5 points per game while shooting 48.4% from the field and averaging 5.6 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game. He does it all, and he’ll be a fun player to watch during the tournament.

James Bouknight, for Connecticut, is on the opposite end of the spectrum. The true sophomore is much less experienced than Wright, but he’s an impending first-round pick and a major talent.

He’s scoring 19 points per game this season, and while he turns the ball over more than he assists, he’s the type of guard who could lead the Huskies on a Kemba Walker-type run.

John Petty Jr., a senior for Alabama, averaged double-digit scoring for the fourth straight season. He’s the type of player who can catch fire from beyond the arc and win a game by himself.

M.J. Walker and Scottie Barnes are stars for Florida State, scoring in double figures despite playing fewer than 30 minutes per game.

Andrew Jones scores 14.6 points per game for Texas, and freshman Greg Brown is an absolute monster going to the basket.

Michigan is no stranger to playing against superstars, especially with Luka Garza and Ayo Dosunmu in the Big Ten. There will be great players around every corner from now until the season ends.

Rick Pitino

Iona will be gone by Saturday, but it’s pretty incredible that Rick Pitino is already back in the NCAA Tournament after being effectively banished from the sport five years ago.

He’s in the Big Dance with his fifth different school. There’s no denying Pitino wins wherever he goes.

Ironically, his final game before getting fired at Louisville was a second-round loss to Michigan in the NCAA Tournament.

The No. 7 Wolverines, led by Moe Wagner and D.J. Wilson, upset No. 2 Louisville in -- where else? -- Indianapolis.

On a related note, Louisville was perhaps the most surprising omission from the Field of 68, but it was good to see some smaller schools, such as Drake and Wichita State, get rewarded.

Popular double-digit seeds

I can already see it in the brackets: People picking No. 12 Georgetown and No. 13 UNC Greensboro to upset No. 5 Colorado and No. 4 Florida State, respectively.

There are almost always upsets in the No. 12 vs. No. 5 games, and No. 13 seeds have been known to win a few games, too. Since Georgetown made such an impressive run through the Big East Tournament and UNC Greensboro won a solid Southern Conference, these will be popular choices.

Personally, I believe the favorites have an edge in both of those games, but there’s absolutely a chance one of these hot underdogs could pull a shocker. Either way, don’t be surprised if someone in your bracket pool has that No. 12 vs. No. 13 matchup in the second round.

My prediction

Before the injury to Livers, I might have picked Michigan to win this region and get to the Final Four, but that’s not a slam dunk. After two months of sheer dominance in the Big Ten, the Wolverines started to sputter down the stretch.

It started with the blowout loss to Illinois and continued with a couple of incomplete performances against Michigan State. Then, this weekend at the Big Ten Tournament, slow starts and cold shooting held back what was once an elite offense.

Isaiah Livers #2 of the Michigan Wolverines battles for a loose ball against Malik Hall #25 of the Michigan State Spartans during the second half at Crisler Arena on March 04, 2021 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (2021 Getty Images)

There’s certainly an element of peaking too early in college basketball. I’m not sure if that’s the case with Michigan, but there’s no denying it isn’t playing its best basketball heading into the Big Dance. The Livers injury just exacerbates those concerns.

Between LSU, Florida State, Alabama, Colorado and Texas, Michigan is going to have to get back to playing its best basketball to survive the East Region. Can Michigan do it? Absolutely. But I need to see a complete performance before that becomes the expectation again.

Right now, I think Michigan needs to focus on surviving the first weekend and getting to the Sweet 16. If it can do that, anything is possible. I’m leaning toward Texas or Alabama coming out of the East.

About the Author:

Derick is a Senior Web Producer for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.