Talented Michigan dismantles efficient Gators in Elite Eight
ARLINGTON, Texas -- The debate over the role of quantitative analysis in basketball has never been an either/or thing, but proponents of each side of the "eye test" vs. "the numbers" debate had much reason to watch this Easter Sunday, deep in the heart not only of Texas but also of the college hoops season.
The Michigan Wolverines are dripping with potential pro lottery picks. They have an ethereal point guard who should be the national player of the year along with the offspring or relatives of several very prominent NBA stars. They ooze potential, almost at the same rate that they sometimes ooze easy baskets around the rim. They suck you in with their sensual skill and try to make you forget their relative defensive efficiency foibles.
In the other corner were the Florida Gators, darlings of the #MATH community, droppers of 29 double-digit victories this season. They were seemingly allergic to the close win, good most of the time and very bad in those spots where teams actually stayed close. They were "statistically unlucky," not unclutch. They were "dominating a BCS league," not beating up on a conference almost as weak as Pac-12 '12. They were evidence that 35 games is a better indicator of team quality than any individual one.
Well, you only get one Elite Eight game. And Michigan's Eyeball Appeasers crushed Florida's Spreadsheet Stuffers. If this were a prize fight, it would have been stopped inside the second round. Near the end of the first half, everyone on press row was looking for a white towel to throw. At the end of 40 minutes, there was nothing controversial or unclear about which team, on this day, was vastly better. John Beilein was the coach needing a change after a Gatorade bath while Billy Donovan just needed a long shower.
"We didn't play well enough or deserve to win this game," said Donovan afterward, simply. "Michigan deserved this game. They played better than us. They performed better. They did things that were necessary to beat us."
Even the Easter Bunny doesn't have a basket large enough for Florida's egg today. Michigan entered the floor before tip with a confident swagger, but the Gators seemed oddly passive, even for a team that had been on this stage the two previous seasons, as well. The ball tipped and then, metaphorically, it was like all five Michigan players turned and punched their Gator counterparts smack in the face. It was 2-0, then 4-0, then 7-0 ... and a few possessions later, 13-0. It was shocking. It was a manhandling. It was almost as if the game were over after three minutes. Maybe it was over.
Florida never recovered, no amount of efficiency margin able to overcome the fact that Michigan appeared to be better at all five positions. Mitch McGary opened in strong fashion again, and Patric Young was quickly on the bench with two quick touch fouls. Each team has an X-factor three-point shooter. Michigan's Nic Stauskas made all six of his attempts, virtually from the same spot in the left corner. Florida's Erik Murphy went 0-for-11 from the field, with only two attempts from behind the arc. Defensive stopper Scottie Wilbekin couldn't fully contain Trey Burke, and with respect to the careers of Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario, they're not as good as the sons of NBA players, Glenn Robinson III and Tim Hardaway, Jr., also arrowing steadily toward that professional vocation.
There was nowhere for Florida to turn. Nowhere for the Gators to go to attempt to stanch the bleeding.
The single biggest challenge for Beilein during the game may have been to stave off the memories and self-doubt created by the last time one of his teams was on this stage. There was an eerie parallel. As head coach at West Virginia in 2005, Beilein's Mountaineers led by 20 with under three minutes remaining in the first half of their Elite Eight game with Louisville before a furious Cardinals forced overtime, where Louisville won by eight. When Billy Donovan took timeout after a Robinson dunk made the score 35-15 Michigan with 5:27 left in the half, well, it was hard to avoid the flashbacks.
"This was déjà vu for a minute," Beilein said. "We had an opportunity with Louisville with a team that was on a run. We got on a run. We got up by too much too early and they came back and beat us in overtime. That did occur to me a few times [during today's game] and I was trying to think of whatever I could do to be positive through this whole thing."
It's gone without the consummate hype of last season's Kentucky team, but Michigan is the youngest team in this NCAA tournament. The current starting lineup, now that Emerging Force Mitch McGary has taken over as the center, has three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior. It's a team with tremendous individual talent that needed time to gel, especially as it got pushed harder and harder by a brutal Big Ten conference schedule.
McGary's impact in the NCAAs has been pronounced, but Michigan was already the most efficient offensive team in the nation this season. What's happened, at least for the non-Kansas parts of the NCAA tournament, is Michigan has played much better defense, a development that Beilein has seen coming for awhile.
"I know that our youngest players were [at] that point where they were understanding what they did more than they did earlier, where they were supposed to be [on defense]," Beilein said about his team's improvement in that area in the NCAAs. "Now sometimes we were late, but they knew they should be there. There were some times this year when we were just trying to figure things out."
There wasn't much to figure out in the aftermath of today's dominant performance. The Wolverines are back in the Final Four for the first time since the Fab Five dismantled in 1993 (OK, the NCAA claims the last time was 1989, but I saw it, you saw it, the final against North Carolina and Chris Webber's timeout happened.) The Gators are left picking up the pieces after a third straight Elite Eight setback and the transition from seniors like Boynton and Murphy, who lifted the program from their post-national title NIT period to the precipice of the Final Four.
Today, though, no one in white was good enough. Efficiency met talent deficiency and lost. One-game samples are usually the worst thing to base opinions on, but today's sample was pretty damn definitive.