But that wasn’t the case Sunday, when Michigan put together a full 40 minutes of beautiful, inspiring basketball to run a very good Florida State team right out of the Sweet 16.
It was a clinic on both ends of the court. Florida State’s size wasn’t enough to win the rebounding battle. Its athleticism wasn’t enough to overwhelm Michigan in transition.
In an 18-point victory that propelled them to their fourth Elite Eight in eight tournaments, the Wolverines looked like their old selves again -- and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
Cynics might argue that as a No. 1 seed, Michigan hasn’t done anything special by advancing to the Elite Eight. This is right where it should be -- no big deal.
But when the field of 68 was announced two weeks ago, the overwhelming sentiment was that the other three No. 1 seeds were heavy favorites to survive their regions, while Michigan could make an early exit.
That’s not to say concerns about the Wolverines were unjustified. After starting the season 18-1, Michigan struggled in March, losing by 23 points at home to Illinois and entering the NCAA Tournament having dropped three of five games.
On top of its rough finish, Michigan limped into the Big Dance without Isaiah Livers -- a senior captain and the best shooter on the roster. Livers has Final Four experience and is an important presence for the team in every phase of the game. It was -- and still is -- a massive loss.
Many experts thought Michigan would lose to LSU in the second round, and even more expected a Florida State victory Sunday night. The former ended up a much more real possibility than the latter, as the Florida State game was never in doubt.
From the jump, there was something different about Juwan Howard’s team on Sunday. Michigan jumped out to a quick 17-8 lead, bucking a recent trend of slow starts. Other than the Texas Southern and Michigan State wins, Michigan had faced big deficits in five of its previous seven games.
- LSU led by 9 points.
- Ohio State led by 13 points.
- Maryland led by 12 points.
- Michigan State led by 11 points in East Lansing.
- Illinois led by 28 points.
Basketball is a game of runs, so it’s not uncommon for teams to fall behind at some point over the course of a game. But not Michigan -- especially early in the season.
When the Wolverines were ascending to the top of the Big Ten, they built comfortable first-half leads and blasted teams out of the water after the break -- just ask Maryland, Northwestern, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maryland (again), Purdue, Rutgers, Iowa and Indiana.
So even though Michigan was overcoming these recent deficits, it certainly looked like the team’s ceiling without Livers was much, much lower.
Turns out, maybe it’s a bit higher than we thought.
We’ve seen the best versions of Franz Wagner, Hunter Dickinson and Mike Smith at various points throughout the season. When they all converge at once, Michigan can compete with anybody.
Now, you can mix in a revitalized Chaundee Brown, who went scoreless in the first round but exploded for a combined 33 points on 11-for-15 shooting against LSU and Florida State.
Brandon Johns is also playing the best basketball of his career at the most opportune time. The newly crowned starter gave Michigan 14 points, six rebounds, two assists and two steals in the Sweet 16. Johns is quick to loose balls and a willing defender. His size helped Michigan overcome back-to-back length disadvantages.
Eli Brooks didn’t have his best game offensively Sunday, but he saved Michigan’s season a week ago, dropping 21 points, seven assists and four rebounds on LSU.
When all the parts come together for Michigan, the end product is what we saw Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. It took awhile to recalibrate roles after Livers was shut down, but Howard seems to have all the pieces back in place.
Michigan’s work is far from over. UCLA has one of the most impressive resumes so far this tournament: four wins, two in overtime, and an upset of No. 2 seed Alabama. The Wolverines can’t afford to look past the Bruins, but there’s no reason to believe they will.
The field is down to eight teams, and one off night -- heck, one bad bounce -- can end a season. But the Sweet 16 provided a reminder of what Michigan looked like in January and February, and perhaps a glimpse of what it could be for one more week.