Chaos may be defining the South Region of the NCAA Tournament but it’s been a rather ho-hum run of upsets that have led to the compelling West Regional final in Los Angeles between Florida State and Michigan with a trip to the Final Four at stake on Saturday.
The Wolverines equaled a school record with their 31st win of the season in a romp over Texas A&M in the Sweet 16, controlling everything on both ends of the court from the opening tip to the final buzzer. This was a team that many saw as having a great path to the Final Four and has taken full advantage thanks to some really top-notch defense and the timely shooting one needs to make a run deep into March. German big man Moritz Wagner has terrific in stuffing the stat sheet all over and always seems to be in the middle of a big play for a team that is making them left and right the past few weeks.
On the opposite bench, this is far from Leonard Hamilton’s most talented team in Tallahassee but the group is balanced, deep and can play just about any style of basketball you can throw at them. The Seminoles have managed three straight massive upsets to reach an improbable Elite Eight berth and few can claim to be as deep as they are. Though they don’t have many stars or a collection of NBA Draft lottery picks, overlook them at your own peril because few compete on every play quite like this team does and all that hard work is certainly paying off in the pressure-packed arena of the NCAA Tournament.
The end result is the third time in history that Florida State has made it this far in the tournament, a bit of a contrast to their opponent who will be going on their third Elite Eight appearance under head coach John Beilein in six seasons. Only one can book their trip from the big lights of Los Angeles to the big stage of Final Four in San Antonio and it would surprise nobody if it came down to the final few minutes to decide a winner between these two.
West Region: No. 9 Florida State (23-11) vs. No. 3 Michigan (31-7)
Time: 8:49 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Where: Staples Center (Los Angeles)
Keys for Florida State
It’s not often an FSU program will embrace being the role of the underdog, but this group of Seminoles has no issue with being discounted early and winding up on top with the last laugh. The team has started to click in March in a way they haven’t really done since the beginning of the season and certainly have picked the right time to be playing their best basketball.
Though he was dealing with a groin injury through the early rounds, it appears guard Terance Mann is more than fully healed after dropping 18 points in the Sweet 16 victory over Gonzaga. He’ll need a similar kind of effort on Saturday and his ability to finish around the rim (plus hit the mid-range jumper) will be play a big role against the kind of defenses he’ll see from the Wolverines.
Though this may be the deepest team left in the tournament with 10 regulars in rotation, finding somebody to step up alongside Mann and be an impact player is likely the difference between a trip to the Final Four or a long plane ride home. Braian Angola and Phil Cofer have the talent to turn in a big performance but will need to get into rhythm early on in order to keep Michigan on its toes. Big men Ike Obiagu and Christ Koumadje may have the bigger challenge in having to clean up the glass and defend the Wolverines’ Moritz Wagner when he tries to slip outside. Both are talented enough to where they can have big games offensively against an otherwise undersized front court and will need to save their best for Saturday night.
Keys for Michigan
Everybody knows the Wolverines can play stifling defense, but if they can shoot like they did against Texas A&M in the Sweet 16 then all that national title game talk among the Big Blue faithful could be on point. On a rainy Thursday night in Los Angeles, the team poured in 14 3-pointers and shot 62 percent from the field in perhaps the most complete game of the season from anybody in the Big Ten. Their last loss was all the way back on Feb. 6 and, while Michigan needed an improbable Jordan Poole buzzer-beater to even make it to the second weekend, it might be hard to find a team playing as well as this one on both ends of the court.
Big man Moritz Wagner is the straw that stirs the drink both in the paint and from beyond the arc but if Michigan wants to reach the Final Four again the Wolverines need a balanced effort from others against FSU. Senior Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman seemed to find his scoring touch once again on Thursday and if he can get past the length that the Seminoles bring on defense, another scoring outburst could be on tap from Staples Center.
Fellow guard Zavier Simpson could also be a key member of the backcourt to watch going into the game. He seemed to have no problem with the length the Aggies threw at him in dishing out five assists and will need a similar kind of effort given how swarming the upcoming opponents can be. This is one extremely confident team that has found plenty of success on this wild run so it goes without saying that they don’t have to change much to survive and advance one more time.
Given the way things have shaken out, it would be a bit of an upset if the Wolverines weren’t playing for the national title next week. The team has been one of the hottest in the country the past two months and they’re well rested between the extra week prior to the NCAA Tournament and the romp over Texas A&M in the Sweet 16. Those fresh legs will wind up being the difference in a big moment against Florida State on Saturday as they clamp down on the Seminoles and escape from LA with a ticket to the Final Four.
Prediction: Michigan 64, Florida State 53
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)