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NCAA Tournament: 5 keys for Michigan vs. Tulsa

Michigan, Tulsa meet in First Four Wednesday night

Duane Burleson/Getty Images
Duane Burleson/Getty Images

DETROIT – The Michigan basketball team will begin its NCAA Tournament slate Wednesday night against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane in the First Four.

Michigan, which sneaked into the field thanks to an improbable Big Ten Tournament run, has never met Tulsa on the hardwood. The Golden Hurricane won 20 games this season and went 12-6 in the American Athletic Conference.

Tulsa isn't a big-name program, but Frank Haith's team proved it can play with tournament-caliber teams. The Golden Hurricane won six games against NCAA Tournament teams, including victories over Connecticut and SMU -- two teams that crushed Michigan during non-conference play.

What will it take for Michigan to survive the play-in game and earn a date with No. 6 Notre Dame Friday night? Here are five major keys to a Wolverines victory.

Derrick Walton's defensive intensity

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Derrick Walton didn't make a field goal in Michigan's two Big Ten Tournament wins, but he was still one of the most impactful players in the run to the semifinals.

Walton drew a tough defensive assignment Friday when he lined up across from a fully-rested Yogi Ferrell. Ferrell, who averaged 17 points and 5.5 assists per game as a senior, was never comfortable. Walton was in his face from the opening tip and held him to just 10 shot attempts in 36 minutes.

When Walton is wreaking havoc in the back court, it sets the tone for Michigan's defensive intensity. The Wolverines weren't a strong defensive team this season, but managed to hold an elite Indiana offense under 70 points in the biggest game of the year.

Back court defense will be particularly important against Tulsa, which gets most of its offense from its guards. James Woodard (15.6 points per game), Shaquille Harrison (14.8) and Pat Birt (12.4) account for 57.8 percent of the Golden Hurricane offense and will certainly test Michigan's defense.

Tulsa's trio of guards is formidable, but none are as difficult to guard as Ferrell. If Walton is up for the challenge and cuts into their production, it'll be a long night for Tulsa.

Zak Irvin's jump shot

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Despite Michigan's 5-7 record down the stretch, John Beilein did solve one of the biggest questions that arose when Caris LeVert went down with a season-ending injury: Who will Michigan go to with the game on the line?

Irvin didn't have a particularly strong finish this season, shooting under 40 percent in each of Michigan's last four games, but he did solidify himself as a leader on offense. Irvin showed flashes of clutch play-making ability early in the season, hitting big three-pointers late in wins over Texas and Maryland, But Irvin didn't really grab the reins of the offense until late in the year.

Irvin knocked down the eventual winning jump shot from just beyond the free-throw line in Michigan's win over Purdue and later kept the season alive with a contested jumper in overtime against Northwestern. Without those two shots, Michigan wouldn't be in the NCAA Tournament.

On the other hand, Irvin can sometimes handicap the offense with poor shot selection. In the loss to Purdue last weekend, Irvin made only five of 16 shots and threw away a few possessions with bad shots early in the shot clock. When Irvin is off, it can really cripple Michigan's flow.

Irvin's first few jumpers could have a major impact on Wednesday's game. If he gets hot, Tulsa's smaller guards won't be able to do much against the 6-foot-6 junior. But if he slumps, the Wolverines will miss a critical cog in their offense.

A rare size advantage

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Since Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGary left Michigan after the 2014 Elite 8, Beilein has played with a size disadvantage in almost every meaningful Big Ten game. Teams like Purdue, Maryland and Michigan State have centers that score inside and protect the paint on defense, while Michigan has made due with a pair of 6-foot-9 sophomores who should probably be guarding forwards.

On Wednesday, the tables will turn. Starting big man Mark Donnal will actually have a size advantage against a Tulsa team that runs almost entirely through its guards.

Of the five Tulsa players who average more than 20 minutes per game, only Rashad Smith (6-foot-7) is taller than 6-foot-5. Forwards Brandon Swannegan and D'Andre Wright are both 6-foot-9 and play decent minutes, but they aren't dominant rebounders or scorers. Donnal should be able to assert himself on the defensive glass and play a role on offense.

Coming off a Big Ten Tournament in which he guarded mammoth centers Alex Olah (7 feet tall), A.J. Hammons (7 feet tall) and Isaac Haas (7 foot 2) and athletic 6-foot-10 freshman Thomas Bryant, Donnal will be relieved to see an undersized Tulsa front court.

The only player taller than Donnal on the Tulsa roster is Emmanuel Ezechinonso, who played in six games this season.

Donnal and backup center Ricky Doyle have been playing against much bigger opponents all season. Now that size is on their side, they should be more effective on both ends.

Get MAAR off to a fast start

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When LeVert went down in late December, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman stepped into his starting role as a relative unknown. Abdur-Rahkman was buried behind LeVert and Spike Albrecht in the back court to start the season, but played at least 30 minutes in 17 of the team's last 20 games.

Abdur-Rahkman flourished in LeVert's absence, taking over the role of No. 1 off-the-dribble threat. The 6-foot-4 sophomore can finish at the rim and is one of the few Wolverines who can blow by defenders off the dribble.

In all three Big Ten Tournament games, Abdur-Rahkman got off to hot starts. He scored the team's first eight points against Northwestern, knocked down the first jumper of the game against Indiana and broke up an 8-0 Purdue run in the first four minutes Saturday.

Because of his ability to get to the rim, Abdur-Rahkman is lethal when the outside jumper is falling. He shoots a serviceable 35.9 percent from beyond the arc, but made six of 11 attempts in Indianapolis. As a result, he totaled 44 points in three tournament games.

When Abdur-Rahkman is involved in the offense, it gives Michigan another dimension.

Use the bench

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For the majority of the season, Michigan's regular rotation has included seven players (not counting LeVert). Irvin, Walton, Abdur-Rahkman, Donnal, Doyle, Duncan Robinson and Aubrey Dawkins played in more than 30 games and averaged double-digit minutes.

With a seven-man rotation, Michigan is a shallow team and the starters tire easily. In February and early March, the Wolverines often settled for poor shots on offense, lagged a step behind on defense and shot poorly from long range, likely because of tired legs.

Now, as the team's goal shifts to playing three games in the next five days, Beilein absolutely has to keep more players involved and keep those legs fresh.

Luckily for Michigan, two players emerged last week as legitimate options off the bench: Moritz Wagner and Kam Chatman.

Chatman's greatest contribution to the Big Ten Tournament was obvious: The three-point shot to beat Indiana and propel Michigan into the NCAA Tournament. But over the last month, the sophomore has showed plenty of signs that he deserves to be on the court. Over the team's final 12 games, Chatman played only 68 total minutes, but scored 34 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. He only turned the ball over once.

Wagner never really got a chance to prove himself until Michigan got into foul trouble against Indiana. In 16 minutes, Wagner scored nine points, going a perfect 3-for-3 from the field, 1-for-1 from the three-point line and 2-for-2 from the charity stripe. He also picked up a pair of offensive rebounds.

Chatman and Wagner are both offensive threats and give Michigan much-needed shots of energy off the bench. Against a small but talented Tulsa team, big, mobile players can make an impact.

What do you expect to see from Michigan in the NCAA Tournament? Let us know in the comments section below!