College basketball commentators sometimes use the turn of phrase “win in the mud” when referring to the ability to prevail when games are difficult. Can you win games which are defined by ample resistance from the opposition? Can you win when your shots aren’t falling? Can you win when every basket feels like an enormous achievement and the product of a considerable amount of effort?
Quality teams will win by 20 or more points when everything is falling and all five players are in perfect harmony, playing at their best, but what about that game when only one player is excellent for the full 40 minutes and the rest of the roster finds brief moments of brilliance, but nothing it can sustain for extended stretches of time?
Most successful NCAA championship runs involve at least one game out of six in which a team has had to win in the mud to some degree. A team might thrive in five, but it needs those mud-sweeping sticks in contest number six.
The Michigan Wolverines didn’t win the NCAA Tournament last year. Villanova was a lot better. However, the Wolverines did get to the national championship game. Whereas a lot of teams playing on “Monday Night” (a shorthand reference to playing in the title game, given that it has been a Monday fixture since 1973) have to win in the mud once or maybe twice, but then thump the opposition in their other games, Michigan took an unusual route. It won in the mud FOUR times.
Recall the journey to the Final Four for John Beilein’s team (and if we are being honest, the team whose defense was coordinated by assistant coach and future Division I head coach Luke Yaklich):
Michigan is going to the Final 4 despite these 3-point shooting numbers in 3 separate NCAAT games:
Combined in those 3 games: 17-68, a cool 25 percent from 3-point range
Ridiculous D and one Poole splashhttps://t.co/OW7Xj63lOa
— Matt Zemek (@MattZemek) March 25, 2018
The Michigan Wolverines got to the Final Four using that very inelegant route detailed above, and then they won their Final Four national semifinal against Loyola-Chicago despite going 7 of 28 from 3-point range.
Michigan won four NCAA Tournament games last year in which it averaged 25 percent on threes: 24 of 96. Michigan won four NCAA Tournament games in which it never shot better than 31.3 percent from long distance. Michigan won three of those four games shooting no better than 26.7 percent from downtown.
That’s how incredibly disciplined and consistent the Wolverines were on defense.
Guess what? They haven’t lost that knack.
Michigan went 4 of 17 from 3-point land on Saturday against the excellent defense of the formidable Wisconsin Badgers. Wisconsin — being completely on-brand — made Michigan work for every last basket, every last piece of real estate, every last bit of leverage. Michigan slugged it out with Wisconsin, much as Jon Teske slugged it out with Badger star Ethan Happ — this tweet does not reflect final stats, but was tweeted with a few minutes left in regulation:
Can't understate how impressive this has been from Teske, who was schooled by Happ for about 6 minutes early on but has now fought him to a draw. 17 and 12 for Teske, 18 and 10 for Happ.
— Noah Trister (@noahtrister) February 9, 2019
The reality of winning in the mud does mean that games will be close, so Michigan could fall off the ledge in March. Nevertheless, Michigan has still shown it can continue to win when threes aren’t falling. John Beilein has work to do at the offensive end, but Luke Yaklich could not be doing a better job than he is right now.
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