Perhaps the most unlikely story of this March, including the 2017 NCAA Tournament, is the suddenly inspired play out of John Beilein's Michigan Wolverines. A loss at Northwestern to open the month of Madness dealt a serious blow to Michigan's NCAA Tournament hopes.
After the team's airplane skidded off the runway en route to the Big Ten Tournament, however, a series of events began that elevated Michigan to the Sweet 16. The Wolverines ripped off conference tournament wins over Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin to earn the league's automatic bid into the Big Dance.
A frenetic First Round victory over Oklahoma State set up a showdown with second-seeded Louisville. Despite a considerable halftime deficit, the Wolverines rallied to book their spot in the Sweet 16. They now stand one win away from their third Elite Eight appearance in the last five years. Between Michigan and the Midwest Region final is a uniquely talented Oregon team.
The Pac-12's co-regular-season champions fell out of the West Region and contention for a No. 1 seed with a loss in the conference tournament. The bigger loss during the Ducks' time in Las Vegas, however, was center Chris Boucher to a knee injury. Boucher's defensive presence was sorely missed in the loss to Arizona, as well as a tightly contested Round of 32 win over Rhode Island.
The Ducks gave up 46 first-half points to the Rams, but rallied with a 26-point defensive yield in the second half. They'll need to replicate their final 20 minutes to slow a red-hot Michigan offense.
Midwest Region: No. 7 Michigan Wolverines (26-11) vs. No. 3 Oregon Ducks (31-5)
When: 7:09 p.m. ET (Thursday)
Where: Sprint Center (Kansas City, Mo.)
Line: Michigan -1
Keys for Michigan
In the First Round, Michigan relied on its perimeter play to out-gun Oklahoma State. Against Louisville, forward Moritz Wagner took over. He scored 20 more points against the Cardinals (26) than in the opening round. Combined with D.J. Wilson, Wagner gives Michigan scoring might on the interior that Oregon's less equipped to defend now that Boucher is out.
Oregon is a high-scoring offensive team, and Michigan's No. 73-ranked defensive efficiency isn't the most conducive to slowing down the Ducks. The Wolverine guards and wings will have to expend more energy keeping Dillon Brooks out of the paint off the dribble and hot-shooting Tyler Dorsey from bombing away from deep. That puts the offensive onus on the blocks against a thin Oregon front court.
If Wagner and Wilson can draw Jordan Bell into foul trouble and force Oregon's perimeter players to help on the post that should open up the floor more for Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr.
Keys for Oregon
Oregon's proven the ability to score in buckets, but the Ducks' best course of action against Michigan is to bring down the tempo. The Ducks rarely commit turnovers, ranking No. 4 nationally in percentage of possessions with a giveaway. They'll need to be just as careful with the ball in a Sweet 16 matchup that may come down to pace of play.
Michigan's been at its best when it can get out and run. While limiting turnovers will be crucial for Oregon preventing that, so too will run-outs on long misses. Oregon relies heavily on the 3-pointer, which proved critical in the win over Rhode Island. But as the old adage goes: Live by the three, die by the three.
In losses, Oregon's shot below 37 percent from behind the arc, including 28 percent vs. Arizona. While Dana Altman can't take Dorsey's green light off, the Ducks may be best serve taking their shots deeper in the shot clock to slow the Wolverines.
Oregon's struggles to defend Rhode Island on shots inside the arc – the Rams connected on 65 percent of attempts from 2-point range – does not bode well for a matchup with Michigan. The Wolverines shoot the nation's eighth-best 2-point field-goal percentage.
With Jordan Bell having to carry much of the interior defensive load, that means more inside looks for either Moritz Wagner or D.J. Wilson. The 3-pointer must be Oregon's great neutralizer – and it certainly can be, as the Ducks have proven in wins over Arizona, UCLA, and most recently, Rhode Island. If they go cold, however, Michigan's unlikely run continues.
Prediction: Michigan 78, Oregon 74
(Top photo courtesy of @umichbball)