Scouting Friday’s first-round NCAA tournament game between Midwest Region No. 7 seed Michigan and No. 10 seed Oklahoma State:
All eyes will be focused here, as each team’s best player plays point guard. Michigan’s Derrick Walton Jr. and Oklahoma State’s Jawun Evans are among the most dynamic guards in the country over the past two months. Since Jan. 14, Evans has averaged 19.6 points, 7.1 assists and 3.8 rebounds, and Walton has averaged 18.1 points, 5.5 assists and 5.4 rebounds. Evans might be the fastest guard U-M has seen this season; Walton is one of the most physical the Cowboys have had to defend. Keeping Evans limited to the half court will be a priority for the Wolverines. The difference at guard might be who else steps up. U-M’s Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman has fallen off the past two games, after scoring in double digits for eight straight. Oklahoma State’s Phil Forte has played well recently, especially from the three-point line. In a game likely to be high-scoring, Abdur-Rahkman must produce. Edge: Oklahoma State.
Both teams potentially have a factor at wing. Michigan’s Zak Irvin has rediscovered his mid-range game but still is lacking consistent three-point shooting, just 2-for-8 the past two games. But with his improved playmaking and defense, he is valuable in many areas. And he’ll have to be, guarding Oklahoma State’s Jeffrey Carroll, who dropped 48 points combined on Kansas and Iowa State the past two games, including eight three-pointers. Carroll also is a good offensive rebounder, at 6-foot-6. U-M’s chance to gain an advantage comes at the 4 and 5 spots, where Moe Wagner and D.J. Wilson are tough matchups because they can be effective on the perimeter or work around the basket. Wilson has two inches and about 35 pounds over OSU senior Leyton Hammons. Wagner will face 7-foot, 240-pound Mitchell Solomon. The key for U-M is keeping those two off the boards; they combine for 10 rebounds per game. Edge: Even.
Oklahoma State goes much deeper on its bench, with five reserves who play more than 12 minutes per game. Most of them can shoot three-pointers. But the bench has done little in the Cowboys' recent three-game losing streak, which might signal a key for U-M. Michigan gets a total of about 16 points per game from Duncan Robinson, Mark Donnal and Xavier Simpson, but without any bruisers on the roster, Donnal doesn’t match up well against the Cowboys. Simpson might need to play because of the expected fast pace, especially if Walton gets in foul trouble while trying to contain Evans. Robinson could be a difference maker with his shooting, but he only attempted more than two threes in one game in the Big Ten tournament. Edge: Even.
The Wolverines are coming off of a stunning four-games-in-four-days run to the Big Ten title and would appear to have momentum after riding the emotional wave following their plane crash. It was easy to stay in the moment in Washington. Now that they’ve been home for a few days, the emotion may not be the same. At least it’s better than the three-game losing streak the Cowboys are on. Edge: Michigan.
Michigan’s John Beilein has 40 years of experience and has encountered almost every opponent imaginable. His teams typically are prepared, and this year’s group seems more willing to listen and absorb game plans than most. He usually has a wrinkle in the opening game of a tournament, something they hadn't shown on film. Oklahoma State’s Brad Underwood has worked his way up from the lower levels, putting in time at community colleges and as an assistant to Bob Huggins (Kansas State) and Frank Martin (KSU and South Carolina). He has been a successful coach, winning two NCAA tournament games while at Stephen F. Austin the past three seasons. Edge: Michigan.
Oklahoma State has more firepower and can crank up the pace. That’s one way this game could go. But the Wolverines are aware of that and will do whatever they can to avoid it. Expect to see U-M work the shot clock with a deliberate half-court offense, putting Wagner on the block and hoping the shots fall. If U-M tries to trade baskets, it’ll be a long game and a short NCAA stay. The Wolverines were better at defending the three-pointer in the past 12 games (30.2%), and that will be essential in this game.
Prediction: Michigan 75, Oklahoma State 72.