LOS ANGELES — Texas A&M advanced to Thursday’s Sweet 16 contest in Staples Center with a blowout win over the previous national champions, North Carolina; its season may well have ended against the next national champion.
Michigan’s thorough deconstruction of Texas A&M showed the Wolverines at their absolute best: moving the ball effectively both with the pass and dribble on offense, stifling the Aggies on defense, and knocking down 3-pointers.
Oh, the 3-pointers.
Digital billboards on Southern California’s freeways warned of, “Heavy Rain: Be Prepared.” Texas A&M must not have anticipated the downpour to follow it inside the arena.
Michigan rained in 10 3-pointers in a first half that ended the Aggies’ Elite Eight quest almost as soon as it tipped off. The Wolverines’ NCAA Tournament program-best of 115 points, scored in 1990 against Loyola Marymount, was never in any danger of being broken.
But there was a point in that first half it seemed possible.
The Wolverines came just shy of the century mark on, fittingly, their 14th triple of the afternoon. That was courtesy of C.J. Baird, the student manager-turned-walk-on guard.
“It’s a lot more fun when the ball goes through the net,” said Moritz Wagner, who scored 21 points and knocked down 3-of-3 3-point attempts. “It makes it a lot easier when it’s going down early.”
The Open Man’s Chase Ruttig warned readers after the Big Ten Tournament that John Beilein had his team March-ready. Squads hitting their stride in this most important of basketball months is Beilein’s M.O. — he’s taken four different programs to the NCAA Tournament, joining elite company like the coach Michigan bested to get to Thursday’s Sweet 16, Houston’s Kelvin Sampson.
Beilein’s had Tournament overachievers that flourished with a similar 3-point proficiency as that demonstrated against Texas A&M. Gansey & Pittsnoggle became a March dynamic duo in 2005, bombing West Virginia to the Elite Eight. Spike Albrecht nearly shot Michigan to a national championship in 2013.
As good as the Wolverines were from deep Thursday, however, it was everything else that made them look like the best team in this year’s NCAA Tournament. Michigan used its collective length to narrow passing lanes, its speed to beat Aggies to spot on both sides of the ball, and its chemistry to move the ball around for 21 assists on 39 field goals.
“Our game plan worked out perfectly,” Wagner said in the understatement of the night.
This Michigan team can do what none since 1989 has and win it all. Seeing this version of Michigan basketball isn’t a guarantee.
Following a Round of 32 game that the Wolverines could have lost — should have lost — predicting such an impressive showing would have been going out on a rather narrow limb.
Without that close call, won only because a pair of missed free throws set up a Jordan Poole buzzer-beater, the version of Michigan that arrived in Los Angeles might have stayed in Ann Arbor.
“We can’t do that again. You can’t get miracles like that every day,” said guard Isaiah Livers. “So you gotta come out and hit ’em first in the mouth, and keep it coming.”
Michigan indeed kept it coming, snuffing out any hope Texas A&M had of a comeback with the same energy in the second half as the first.
As impressive as Michigan’s execution on the court, Wolverines backers’ chants of “Let’s! Go! Blue!” gave Staples Center the atmosphere of a game at Crisler Arena.
“In the first half,” forward Jon Teske said of noticing the maize-and-blue-clad crowd’s impact on unnerving the Aggies. “We were getting stops, trying to get 3s here and there, and that got the crowd into it.”
“It was supposed to be a neutral court,” Livers said. “But they said there were a lot more Michigan fans out there…I think that’s what really helped us with our confidence.”
Another dose of that showing both on the floor and in the crowd Saturday, and Michigan basketball fans can log some more airline miles traveling to San Antonio next weekend.