INDIANAPOLIS – Behold college basketball, circa 2017. Notice the smoking scoreboard.
The Oklahoma State Cowboys shot nearly 55 percent Friday, hit seven of 16 3-pointers, made 14 of 16 free throws, got 12 assists from their point guard, controlled the boards by an astounding 40-21 count and put up 91 points.
They still lost to Michigan, 92-91.“It’s one I’ve got to grasp,” Oklahoma State coach Brad Underwood said when it was over. “We shot 55 percent in the NCAA Tournament and just lost in the first round. The game is evolving into this. This goes against basically every stereotype you know.
“The game’s changing. The 3-point line is changing that way.”
Defense is supposed to win championships, and it still might win this one in the end. But by mid-afternoon Friday the NCAA tournament had already given us five teams that had broken 80, and lost. Two years ago, not one did in the entire tournament.
So Friday’s shootout was a seminar on what modern offense can be, efficient and powerful, and dangerous from long range. Michigan and Oklahoma State combined to take 110 shots, 45 of them from the 3-point line, and score 183 points with 36 assists, making only 14 turnovers. Michigan had only four.
“Every punch, they threw right back. We had to throw a jab right back,” Michigan’s Derrick Walton Jr. said after 26 points and 11 assists. “As a point guard it’s great to be a part of a high-paced game, but man, it’s nerve-wracking.“Two of the top offenses in the country going it, not a lot of defense being played. Didn’t look like it, anyway.”
Or as Wolverine forward Moritz Wagner mentioned about trying to play defense in such a game, “It can be frustrating. You look back and the ball’s in the net every time.
This is the season that saw North Carolina score 100 in regulation and lose (to Kentucky’s 103), the first time in Tar Heels’ history that happened. This is the season UCLA roared back into the spotlight because of what the Bruins could do when they have the basketball, with six players averaging in double figures.
So maybe the tournament will be the same flavor. And if so, know what team would be very interesting to follow? The team poor Oklahoma State couldn’t outscore Friday.
Michigan has won six games in a row and just stormed through the Big Ten tournament as a No, 8 seed, the lowest ever to win the league event. The Wolverines commit fewer turnovers than any team in the nation, and can be highly flammable when the shots are falling. Such as the time they went to UCLA, went 14-for-26 from beyond the 3-point arc and scored 84 points. Only problem was, the Bruins scored 102.
“Once we get going,” Walton said Friday, “it’s hard to stop us.”
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So here they were in the second half Friday, trying to keep up with the Cowboys, and especially the blur at point guard, Jawun Edwards. He would finish with 23 points and 12 assists. Oklahoma State would shoot 60 percent in the second half and crush Michigan in points-in-the-paint, 50-20. Also 21-7 in second chance points.
All the ingredients of victory. But not Friday.
Which means a team can overcome some of those nuts and bolts if it is torrid enough from the 3-point line. Michigan took 15 from the arc in the second half. The Wolverines made 11. They were 16-for-29 for the game. They never blinked.
“Today it seemed like they were giving us the 3-ball, and that’s what we do best,” Wagner said. “I think we’re just clicking right now. It’s the right time to click.
“The sky’s the limit with us, especially on the offensive end.”
Assistant coach Billy Donlon was standing in a corner of the locker room trying to describe what that is like when Michigan is rolling, and attributed a quote to another assistant.
“Jeff Meyer’s got the best line for it. All gas, all the time. When the Mercedes is humming offensively, keep your foot on the gas. That’s what we try to do when we’re feeling good and making shots that way. It’s not an arrogance, it’s a mentality of play. We have a German on our team (Berlin’s own Wagner). It’s the Autobahn. There’s no speed limit on the Autobahn.”
Walton is the driver with his foot on the accelerator, doing what seniors often do in March, injecting a sense of urgency into his team. “It’s a lot of fun to know you’ve got that rock that you can always count on,” Michigan guard Duncan Robinson said. “We go as he goes, so hopefully he’s got more left in the tank.”
Walton had his hands full Friday trying to keep up with Evans, who is not so much a Mercedes but a Formula I car. Walton mentioned that every time he looked up, “[Evans] moved the stat column, either points or assists.
“I feel like I’ve been in a full MMA fight ... But all I care about is my team was able to win and I’ll see you guys on Sunday,” Walton added.
That means facing Louisville, a team known for winning with defense. And what does Rick Pitino think of the Wolverines’ offense? “We’re playing against the Golden State Warriors on Sunday.”
As Underwood said -- and repeated several times -- the game’s changing. And any new age needs a poster team.
The assumption this March has always been that’s UCLA. Might also be Michigan.