Michigan basketball survives NCAA tournament scare, proves why it is class of the Big Ten

Shawn Windsor
Detroit Free Press

INDIANAPOLIS — It was scary early. Tense almost to the end. And everything a college basketball game should be with a Sweet 16 berth on the line.  

Michigan basketball survived it all.  

How’s that for Juwan Howard’s first NCAA tournament as a coach

All his Wolverines did was rally from a nine-point deficit, cool off a couple of shooters — and scorers — who were hitting NBA shots, and dig into a quicker, more athletic team to save the Big Ten’s reputation

For now.

Not that Howard is worried a lick about the conference. He's focused on his team, and the cocoon he's built around it. To keep the noise and distractions out. To keep the togetherness and confidence in. 

So that he can survive nights like Monday.

"I am so proud of our team on how they competed today," he said. "There was a lot of possessions out there where we could have held our head down because LSU made a great run."

Michigan guard Chaundee Brown dunks the ball during the second half of the 86-78 win over LSU in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Monday, March 22, 2021, in Indianapolis.

Yes, they could have. Many teams would have. Have you watched the tournament so far? Seen the early deficits that balloon into blowouts?

His Wolverines wouldn't let that happen to them. Their 86-78 win over LSU on Monday doesn't happen without senior guard Eli Brooks, whose first half 3s and calming presence kept U-M close as it tried to figure out what to do with all LSU’s speed.  

None of it happens without Chaundee Brown, who took over when Brooks cooled off, and who almost didn’t get to play this season when the NCAA was considering a transfer waiver from Wake Forest.  

Yet here he was, on a stage he'd only imagined. His mother texted him before the game to remind him why he'd left Wake Forest — all due respect. To remind him why he made the difficult decision to switch schools three years into his college career.

"This is your time," she told him. "You changed schools to be in this position."  

Brown didn't score in the first round against Texas Southern. He scuffled in the loss against Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament. He had 21 against LSU, a season high. 

He knew that to unlock himself, he had to converse with himself, as he always does before a game, when he says a prayer and a few kind and motivational words that only he can hear.

"Just relax," were those words.

Michigan Wolverines head coach Juwan Howard talks to his team during their game against the LSU Tigers during the second round of the 2021 NCAA tournament on Monday, March 22, 2021, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Ind.

And he did. And his play, especially in the second half, helped U-M grab momentum, which led to the return of his smile — he hit four free throws and a 3-pointer in a critical stretch. 

"It was good to see him make some shots because that smile goes a long way for the team," Brooks said. "His energy, his presence, it helps the team."   

There were others, of course. Hunter Dickinson played fine defense on LSU’s Trendon Watford, despite giving up quickness on the perimeter. Brandon Johns hit the glass and provided physicality, not to mention seven points. 

And Franz Wagner took over the game late. He needed it.  

[ Michigan's next opponent: Florida State advances by taking down Colorado ]

Even without a packed arena the pressure was easy to feel … and easy to spot on the court. Making U-M's early survival and late push even more impressive.  

Howard again pushed in the right places and spaces, and it’s not an accident that his team reflects his own easy demeanor.

There is fire, obviously. But not panic.  

That’s how you advance this time of year. Though it was hard to see the finish for much of the game, when LSU kept coming, and coming.  

Michigan Wolverines huddles after a foul commited by center Hunter Dickinson (1) during the second half in the second round of the 2021 NCAA tournament against the Louisiana State Tigers at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 22, 2021.

For a while it looked like the last thing the Wolverines would do was dribble out the clock with the game in hand. 

LSU was that good early, and that good halfway through the second half, when the Tigers combination of skill, perimeter size and shot making looked almost unguardable: freshman guard Cameron Thomas had 30; junior Javonte Smart had 27.   

Their size overwhelmed at times, and swallowed up U-M's point guard Mike Smith. Though Smith, too, hit a critical 3-pointer to stop a second-half run.  

After all that losing at Columbia — that he stayed four seasons there should tell you all you need to know about his dedication and basketball character — this was Smith’s first high-level NCAA tournament game. He felt it. 

Howard pulled him late after turning the ball over a couple times when U-M was trying to ice it. He’ll learn. Just as he has all season. 

Wagner is learning, too. And when he hit a running sky hook off the glass to bump the Wolverines’ lead, his first points since early in the first half — he'd had three to that point — he howled as he ran back up the court, as if to say:  

Finally! 

The next trip down the floor, he knocked down a 3-pointer. This time he turned to the U-M fans, gestured and screamed.  

He’s the team’s most gifted two-way player and a likely lottery pick whenever he chooses to enter the NBA draft. And while he has struggled offensively the last few games, it’s helpful to remember the pressure he’s feeling.  

Not just for his future. But for the present, for this team, for his teammate, Isaiah Livers.

When asked Wagner's performance, Howard kept it short:

"Big-time players step up in big-time moments. And Franz is a big-time player."  

It’s hard to forget what Livers does for this team. But U-M is learning to play without him. That should help even more next weekend, when the competition gets even tougher — as good as LSU is offensively, they can hardly be bothered to defend. 

Michigan Wolverines guard Franz Wagner (21) reacts after drawing a foul during the first half in the second round of the 2021 NCAA tournament against the Louisiana State Tigers at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 22, 2021.

Which explains the runs that dominated the game. 

LSU jumped out to a nine-point lead. U-M took a one-point lead at the half. LSU retook the lead by five. The Wolverines scored 10 straight to go up by six. LSU answered with seven in a row. 

Mostly by spreading out the Wolverines, looking for quickness or size advantages on the perimeter in one-on-one matchups, and then driving to the rim or shooting over the top from deep. 

If not for Brooks almost stopping the runs by himself, U-M might have fallen behind by a lot more than nine points. Because LSU's buckets kept coming.

Floaters off dribble-drives. Pull-up 3s in transition. Muscled-up layups through contact. The kind of stuff that deflates weaker-minded squads. 

Wagner's second-half foul trouble didn't help, but when he returned after sitting, he joined the Brooks and Brown party, too, settling the defense.

Meanwhile, Brown stayed in that place his mom talked about, grinding through possession after possession. From the free-throw line. From the paint. From the 3-point line, where he knocked down two shots that finally broke open the game.  

It’s not surprising, really. This is who Brown can be, and who the Wolverines have been: savvy, tough-minded, locked in when the game is in the balance.

This is why he is here. And why Brooks is playing the way he is; few things have more force in college basketball than a senior in March fighting for one more game.   

So forget what the rest of the Big Ten has done so far. And remember that U-M was the class of the conference, and that the work and camaraderie Howard has overseen was easy to see in the heaviest moments with the season on the line.  

The Wolverines are the last Big Ten team standing. They get to carry the torch for the beleaguered conference another day. Just don't ask Howard or his players to worry about that.

They already have their motto.

"Empty the tank," he told them. 

That they surely did.    

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.