Wednesday night in Dayton, Ohio, the Michigan Wolverines did what all human beings have to do at some point in life: They managed.
When life is difficult and when the course of events just isn’t flowing our way, there are days and weeks when we just have to manage.
We have to live to fight another day. We have to put the big picture in mind and not get exasperated in the face of immediate frustrations. We have to get by and do what we can, knowing that after a good night’s sleep, the next battle with life might be fought with a fresher tank or less anxiety or a greater zest for living… or all of the above.
That’s what Michigan did against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane in the final First Four game. The Wolverines advance to face Notre Dame in the round of 64 on Friday night in Brooklyn.
This was not the kind of game which inspires great tomes or extended essays. The two teams combined to score fewer than 50 points in the first half. Michigan hit 5 of its first 21 shots… and led by eight at halftime. The Wolverines hit just 6 of 25 threes… and they still won.
Much like Vanderbilt — the team which lost in the First Four on Tuesday night — Michigan didn’t shoot well from three-point range on Wednesday. Both Vanderbilt and Michigan — this season, yes, but also structurally, within the frameworks of their respective offenses — depend on the three to score. Part of the reason Michigan advanced while Vanderbilt didn’t is that Tulsa never got hot from three-point range. The Golden Hurricane finished 3 of 15 from the arc. They weren’t able to take advantage of the Maize and Blue’s struggles.
Wichita State didn’t shoot great from three-point range against Vandy (under 40 percent), but the Shockers at least hit three straight triples late in the game to piece together a decisive run. Tulsa never could find a sequence in which it made three-point shots. That one aspect of Wednesday’s game kept Michigan in the hunt to the end. In the final minute, down by only one point, the Wolverines answered the challenge Vanderbilt couldn’t 24 hours earlier. Michigan’s Zak Irvin buried a go-ahead three, and when Tulsa missed on its next possession, the Wolverines simply had to salt away the outcome at the free throw line, which they promptly did.
Michigan’s opponent had a lot to do with the ultimate outcome of this contest, but when given their opening in the final minute, the Maize and Blue did not disappoint. They were far from their best — they missed dozens of box-outs; Derrick Walton got into foul trouble; their big men continued to play spotty help defense near the rim — but they managed.
They managed much as they did in a sluggish and shaky win over Northwestern last week in the Big Ten Tournament. That game wasn’t going to put Michigan in the First Four, but a loss certainly would have knocked the Wolverines out of it.
The next day after that Northwestern escape, Michigan played a much better game to beat Indiana, the regular season Big Ten champion.
It is that last detail — playing a quality game one day after playing a mediocre game — which should give Michigan confidence… and offer fans a reminder of how tournament basketball works.
The NCAA tournament is technically one tournament, but it’s really three two-game tournaments. The character of each game is different, and just as fundamentally, the character of each weekend is different. The first weekend, it’s all about surviving the nerves and the unfamiliarity of the situation, combined with the feisty opponents trying to take you down.
The regionals — Sweet 16 and Elite Eight — represent big-boy basketball with the Final Four so close to being obtained. That’s pressure basketball, but it’s heavyweight basketball against higher-tier opposition.
The Final Four weekend is a time when players must deal with the runaway hype, the media frenzy, and the magnitude not just of the moment itself, but a very big domed football stadium which is different from a normal game environment during the season.
Each venue, each transition to a new site, brings a new texture and feel. No team stays in any one site long enough to master a particular kind of environment. This isn’t about mastery; it’s about winning in the location where you are for a few days, and then getting out of Dodge.
For Michigan, this is exactly the way to view Wednesday’s escape against Tulsa.
This was one game in one city on one night, a few days after the adrenaline rush of barely making the cut for the NCAA tournament. With this hurdle against Tulsa cleared (akin to Northwestern in the Big Ten tourney), Michigan now has the chance to be a more liberated team on Friday against Notre Dame. The Wolverines have an NCAA win under their belts. They are playing with house money against the Fighting Irish. They can grant themselves permission to play freely… which is not what they did for most of the night in Dayton against Tulsa.
Michigan is off to another city, having prolonged its stay in the NCAA tournament.
Michigan survived last week in Indianapolis during the Big Ten Tournament. It survived Dayton and the First Four. If the Wolverines survive Notre Dame, you’ll know they gained fortitude and muscle memory from what they’ve been able to achieve over the past week.