Michigan will be framed as an underdog when it faces Colorado State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday. Make no mistake though, the Wolverines are not your typical 11-seed.
Erratic play sent Michigan (17-14) to the edge of the bubble. The Wolverines struggled to find consistency while navigating one of the nation's toughest schedules. Still, the Wolverines are a team that traditionally turns it on in March. Michigan has reached six straight NCAA Tournaments and has advanced to the Sweet 16 or further six times dating back to 2013. Michigan is a team that can score and rebound in bunches but is porous on defense.
The Rams (25-5) are the highest-seeded Mountain West Conference team in the field of 68. Colorado State earned its highest seed in school history and is in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013 after compiling its third straight 20-win season under head coach Niko Medved. There is some question of how much the Rams have been tested since the bulk of their Quad 1 and Quad 2 wins have come against other Mountain West teams. Colorado State is efficient on offense and plays at a deliberate pace. Defensively, the Rams are good at forcing turnovers.
Michigan leads the all-time series 2-1. Colorado State earned a 70-66 overtime victory over the Wolverines in the most recent meeting in 2002.
South Region: No. 11 Michigan Wolverines (17-14) vs. No. 6 Colorado State Rams (25-5)
Time: Thursday, March 17 at 12:15 p.m. ET
Where: Gainbridge Fieldhouse (Indianapolis)
Spread: Michigan -2.5
Keys for Michigan
One thing the Wolverines do well is give themselves second chances on possessions. They average 10.0 offensive rebounds per game. They also limit second chances, ranking in the top 50 nationally in percentage of offensive rebounds allowed. Against a team like Colorado State, getting a few extra possessions can be crucial. The Rams don't like to speed it up and keeping the ball out of their hands will create extra pressure on whatever possessions they get.
Hunter Dickinson is the engine that makes the Wolverines go. Few teams can combat his size and length around the basket and Colorado State will be no exception. Dickinson, a 7-foot-1 center, was a second-team All-Big Ten selection. He leads Michigan in scoring and rebounding for a second consecutive season, averaging 18.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per contest. Eli Brooks, DeVante' Jones, and Caleb Houston are all true scoring threats on the wing, although Jones won't play because he's in concussion protocol after taking an elbow to the face in practice during the Big Ten Tournament. But the Wolverines' bread and butter is feeding the ball to Dickinson in the post. Exploiting the mismatch he presents will be critical to Michigan's success.
Keys for Colorado State
The Rams are not a team accustomed to making mistakes on offense. They limit turnovers and maximize possessions while averaging 73.7 points per game. Colorado State ranks in the top 20 nationally in effective field goal percentage. If the Rams are hitting shots early, opponents find it tough to stay within striking distance for more than a few minutes. Still, their methodical pace means they're not a team built to rally from a large deficit. Colorado State needs to start fast on offense. Crash the boards and hit from the perimeter early to counteract Michigan's size advantage around the paint.
David Roddy is an NBA prospect who is the cornerstone of this Rams' team. Roddy will be a primary focus of Michigan's defensive game plan. It's crucial to get Roddy thoroughly involved in the offense – both scoring and passing – from the opening minutes. Roddy is an all-around talent, averaging 19.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game. The 6-foot-5 forward is undersized, but he isn't afraid to muscle his way around the paint. Colorado State is 17-3 this season when Roddy finishes with 17 or more points.
Michigan over Colorado State is a popular upset pick in many brackets this week. While the Wolverines sputtered down the stretch, they present a tough matchup for the Rams with their size, speed, and length. Playing in Big Ten country also will create a home-game atmosphere for Michigan. Mountain West teams traditionally struggle to win NCAA Tournament games (Wyoming came up short against Indiana in the First Four on Tuesday night) and Colorado State is unlikely to break that trend.
Prediction: Michigan 69, Colorado State 63
– Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sports journalist based in Utah. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.