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Nick Baumgardner | Detroit Free Press | March 8, 2018

Michigan has the goods for another deep NCAA tourney run

Get ready for Selection Sunday!

Unpredictability has always been the sales pitch.

The notion that anything can happen is what draws people to this event every spring. It's always been marketed properly. People eat it up.

MARCH MADNESS SHOP
And with regard to the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament, unpredictability is often a sales pitch that's brought home. Crazy stuff does, in fact, happen. But the deeper you go, the quicker Cinderella typically makes an exit.

The best team doesn't always win the whole thing. But if you're going to make a Final Four run, a few things need to exist: You have to be elite at something. Having a terrific defense helps, and if your defense is shaky your offense had better be game-changing.

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Michigan will enter the tournament next week with its share of flaws. But it'll also enter on the short list of teams who, if consistency holds, have the goods to make a run.

"There are a number of teams that are capable of beating Michigan," ESPN's Jay Bilas told reporters on a conference call earlier this week. "But there are very few teams, if any, that Michigan is not capable of beating.

"That's got to be a good feeling going into the tournament."

Bilas isn't wrong. And the numbers back this up. In theory anyway.

The first truth: You have to be elite at something.

Since 2002, which is as far as Ken Pomeroy's always impressive analytical stat archives go back, only three teams have advanced to the Final Four without ranking inside the top 20 in either adjusted offensive efficiency or adjusted defensive efficiency.

Two of those teams came in the same season, 2011, when Butler and Virginia Commonwealth simultaneously put together two of the wildest Final Four runs in history. Butler and VCU were outside the top 40 in both metrics and serve as complete outliers. The other team in that bunch was Michigan State's 2010 group, which wasn't exactly chopped liver as the Spartans ranked 33rd offensively and 27th defensively.

As of Wednesday night, Michigan ranked No. 6 in defensive efficiency and No. 29 offensively. That first box is checked.

As is the second.

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"We have an appreciation that it's extremely good to dive on the floor, it's great to take a charge," John Beilein said last week. "(We know) the importance of guarding the ball without fouling. There's a mental toughness and a physical toughness (here)."

Michigan, Mo Wagner defeat Purdue, 75-66
Michigan's defense ranks inside the top 10 for the first time in the Beilein era. Defense was the reason why the Wolverines were able to win games in different ways back when their offense hadn't found its stride in December and January.

The Wolverines have been one of the more improved defensive rebounding teams in America. And while Beilein's never been big on rebounding margin, Michigan's ability to keep opponents off the offensive glass this season (Michigan is No. 28 nationally in opposing offensive rebound percentage) has had him smiling.

Since 2002, only five teams have made the national championship game with a defense ranked outside the top 20. Michigan's 2013 team was one of those five. But, as mentioned above, that team had the No. 1-ranked offense in America.

That team got beat up on the offensive glass, it didn't get to the line and it defended in spurts. But it shot the heck out of the ball, it never had turnovers and it didn't foul. Michigan was elite in all of those final three categories and it rode a hot hand to the final day of the season.

But it couldn't finish. None of those five teams ranking outside the top 20 defensively finished. There hasn't been a single national champion with a defense ranked outside the top 18 nationally since 2002.

Draws matter. Seeds matter. But your own team matters more than anything else. And right now, Michigan's trending in the right direction.

There are, however, flaws.

Michigan will be one of the worst free-throw shooting teams in the tournament, as the Wolverines finished the regular season and conference tournament run at 65.9 percent. That number ranked No. 325 nationally as of Wednesday.

Point guard Zavier Simpson has been the biggest culprit, shooting 51.9 percent for the year. He did bump that up to 59.1 percent in the Big Ten Tournament. And Beilein will continue to try different things to help fix the issues. But is a week enough time for that?

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"I can't (change it up) until we get back home (to practice)," Beilein said last week in New York. "We can't (practice) until we get back home. I watch it every day in practice. It's good at times. But it's something we just have to live with right now. Maybe, at this point, it's a summertime thing."

Michigan isn't immune to a bad game. And unlike times where it had to grind through choppy waters earlier this season, opponents from here on out are tournament teams. They can be unforgiving and everything can end in a flash.

That's the beauty and terror of the NCAA tournament.

But, typically, teams don't make deep runs on accident. They have to have the goods to get there.

And a look at Michigan's body of work tells a simple story: The Wolverines have the goods, so long as they keep it together.

This article is written by Nick Baumgardner from Detroit Free Press and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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