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Twenty-one years ago, a seismic shift occurred in college basketball. Selfless on the floor, transcendent off it and revered and idolized by generations to come, Michigan’s Fab Five revolutionized the way the game was played and viewed.
That year, freshmen sensations Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson, wearing their trademark baggy shorts and black socks, nearly carried the Wolverines, which had basked in the championship limelight with Glenn Rice just three years prior, to another national title. However, eviscerated by Duke in the trophy matchup, they returned to Ann Arbor empty-handed.
Gifted another title crack the following year (1993), the Fab Five, a year older and supposedly a year wiser, again failed to climb the mountain top. In a game forever remembered for Webber’s botched "timeout," they fell short, losing to Eric Montross’ North Carolina squad 77-71.
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That was the last time Michigan punched a ticket to the Final Four.
Over the next several seasons, shorts grew longer, venerable coaches grew wrinklier and the Dukes and Carolinas of the hoops world grew richer, all the while the once elite basketball juggernaut wallowed in mediocrity. Repercussions stemming from the Ed Martin booster scandal set the program back years. From 1995-2012, the Wolverines strapped on a pair of dance shoes just three times, never tasting sweetness.
Now two decades removed from their last national semifinal appearance, many analysts and insiders unanimously agree, the No. 4 seed Wolverines are again a viable contender. As a result, many Pick 'Em patrons are destined to scribble in "Michigan" on their last couple bracket lines. Except maybe those with an Ohio address.
Don’t be that sucker.
To be fair, the Wolverines are a wonderful basketball team. Trey Burke is a modern day Allen Iverson, a master facilitator with a filthy step-back jumper. Tim Hardaway Jr., much like his pops, is an efficient scorer who’s netted 37.3 percent from downtown. Fellow arc assassin, freshman Nik Stauskas, has tickled the twine an astonishing 44.9 percent of the time. And high-motor postmen Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan are tireless workers inside who typically generate abundant second-chance opportunities. Overall, only Indiana ranks higher in adjusted offensive efficiency nationally. Equally impressive, the Wolverines, largely because of Burke’s smoothness at the point, have turned the ball over on just 14.3 percent of their possessions, the lowest amount in the country. They also finished with 12 wins in the toughest conference in the land.
However, defensively, Michigan is more ferret than Wolverine, a harbinger of future disappointment to come.
VCU, in 2011, is the only tournament team since 2000 to advance to the Final Four sporting a defensive efficiency rank north of No. 40. Currently, Michigan checks in at No. 57 in that category. Spanked on the glass, vulnerable in transition and generally generous, it's simply too accommodating. Blinding opponents with its retina-damaging florescent yellow uniforms hasn't even helped. Over their past 12 games, the Wolverines have surrendered an appalling 1.09 points per possession. Heck, Wisconsin, a team known for its prolonged droughts, dropped 48 points in one half against them in the Big Ten Tourney. They clamped-down on rival Michigan State March 3 forcing 18 turnovers while holding the Spartans to a modest 40.5 percent from the floor, but if a similar effort isn’t exuded consistently in the second season an early exit seems likely.
Looking at the teams in the top half of the East region, Kansas, North Carolina and VCU are problematic for the Wolverines. This, of course, assumes they survive their opening-round clash against dangerous South Dakota State. If the Maize and Blue plays loose defensively, Nate Wolters could drop 35 in the blink of an eye. Explosive and prolific from three, the Jackrabbits are no joke offensively and a true threat to eliminate the favorite.
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Undoubtedly, Michigan is currently in the midst of a rebirth under John Beilein, but unless it maximizes defensively, its Final Four drought will surely continue.
Here are five additional favorites that could flounder:
Gonzaga Bulldogs (REC: 31-2, RPI: 7, RPI top-50 Ws REC: 6-2, Seed: 1 Region: West)
Yes, Kennel Club, the Noise is THAT guy. Unquestionably, this is the best team Mark Few has ever had. The Bulldogs are deep, boast a Wooden Award frontrunner in Kelly Olynyk and are balanced across the board. They're one of three teams that ranks inside the top 15 in offensive and defensive efficiency. The 'Zags have also beaten numerous tourney participants, including Oklahoma, Kansas State and, most impressively, Oklahoma State in Stillwater. But the last time it faced a formidable opponent, Butler, sans its best scorer Rotnei Clarke, it lost on a heroic last-second Roosevelt Jones runner. That was Jan. 19. Few always does a superb job with non-conference scheduling, but the obligatory "are-they-prepared?" question is unavoidable. For the past two months, Gonzaga has beaten up on the lowlights of the WCC. Saint Mary's, a mediocre team despite a gaudy record, doesn't exactly scream "outstanding." Again, the Bulldogs are extremely talented and very well could leave egg on this prognosticator's face. When Gary Bell and Kevin Pangos scorch the cylinder, they are near to impossible to beat. However, the extended layoff from playing against meaningful competition may lead to the 'Zags undoing. Wisconsin, with its comparable interior brawn and suffocating perimeter defense, is a team Gonzaga doesn't want to see in the Sweet 16. That matchup occurs, and it could be adios amigo for the No. 1.
New Mexico Lobos (REC: 29-5, RPI: 1, RPI top-50 Ws REC: 10-3, Seed: 3, Region: West)
It's been a historic year for the Lobos and the Mountain West Conference as a whole. The overlooked league is in prime position to silence critics who constantly describe it as a "wannabe." New Mexico, however, may support their viewpoint. Steve Alford's bunch is a bit of a mystery offensively. Kendall Williams is wildly unpredictable. Alex Kirk's scoring contributions are often mitigated by excessive fouls. And Hugh Greenwood has often bricked from three. Tony Snell rediscovered his stroke down the homestretch totaling 99 points in his final five games, including an impressive 21 against UNLV in the MWC tourney final. But it will take the sum of all parts for the Lobos to taste sweetness for the first time since 1974. They share the sugar incredibly well and pummel opponents at the free-throw line. Also, New Mexico is an exceptional defensive team. Foes have netted a mere 0.88 points per possession against it. If the offensive momentum gained over its final five games carries over into the Dance, the MWC champs will inflict serious damage. However, if shots aren't falling, yet another early exit is possible. Despite winning 81 games since 2010, it has yet to escape the first weekend unscathed. Steve Alford claims this year's brand is different, but it will be lucky to punch its ticket for the Elite Eight. Ohio State, which is playing its best basketball of the season, is a strong candidate to knock off New Mexico. Be very wary.
Marquette Golden Eagles (REC: 23-8, RPI: 12, RPI top-50 Ws: 7-6, Seed: 3, Region: East)
Listen to any televised broadcast featuring the Golden Eagles over the past couple weeks and almost every announcing team has pegged them as a team to fear. I couldn't disagree more. On the surface, this year's Marquette squad is akin to previous versions, a club equipped with long, explosive athletes who attack the rim and run the floor like gazelles. Vander Blue, who's played exceptional basketball of late, is an explosive high-flyer. The Eagles are very active around the basket generating a ton of offensive rebounds. They also relish contact, drawing abundant whistles, which they take advantage of. Collectively, they shoot better than 72 percent from the free-throw line. But their underlying profile is loaded with black-eyes. On offense, they are atrocious from three. Only 18.5 percent of their points scored come from beyond the arc. Worst yet, they often shoot themselves in the foot, serving opponents the ball on a silver platter. On the season, they've committed turnovers 21 percent of the time. Defensively, Marquette is above average, but often loses battles on the defensive glass. Over-sized clubs that ramp up pressure and block out will cause it fits, such as Miami and Bucknell, teams in its end of the bracket. Ignore the common narrative. These Eagles will soon be grounded.
Florida Gators (REC: 26-6, RPI: 6, RPI top-50 Ws REC: 5-4, Seed: 3, Region: South)
The Gators are the classic case of looks can be deceiving. The KenPom.com darling – they rank No. 1 according to the metric – will be a popular pick for those that adhere to efficiency measurements. On paper, Florida is certainly intimidating. It ranks inside the top-five in effective field-goal percentage offense and defense. No other school can make such a claim. Erik Murphy is one of the most versatile big men around, scoring over 61 percent inside the arc, 46 plus percent out. Having ball-hawk Will Yeguete back in the fold is also a major plus, but this isn't a team absent of flaws. Recent opponents with a viable post presence has given it trouble. Mississippi's Murphy Holloway went bonkers going 11 for 14 from the field while chipping in 10 rebounds against it in the SEC championship. Drive the cup, draw contact and sink shots, and the Gators are beatable. Worst yet, they've downright choked in tight games. In tilts decided by nine points or less, they're 0-6, largely because they've converted a lowly 68.7 percent from the free-throw line. If it lasts until the Round of 16, expect Georgetown to have its ways against them. Otto Porter is simply too much man for Patric Young and cohorts to contain.
Arizona Wildcats (REC: 25-7, RPI: 15, RPI top-50 Ws: 6-5, Seed: 6, Region: West)
Whether it's Miami (FL) or Screw Me State, Arizona will play to its level of competition. The Wildcats sprinted out to quick start emerging victorious in their first 14 games. Spurred by signature wins against Miami and Florida they climbed inside the top-three in national polls the first week of the new year. But the Pac-12 season exposed 'Zona. Even bland enemies, like USC, eviscerated it along the perimeter and at the charity stripe, causing the 'Cats to limp to a 5-5 record over their final 10 games. During that stretch they allowed an uninspiring 1.04 points per possession. Solomon Hill is a well-rounded baller. His length, athleticism and polished inside/outside game is a matchup problem for any team. He and Kevin Parrom make quite the versatile pair. But Arizona's postseason success hinges on point-man Mark Lyons. When in control, he pumps the pistons offensively. However, when reckless, he leaves the 'Cats susceptible to Cinderella. Their opening-round matchup against No. 11 Belmont shouldn't be taken lightly. The Bruins, led by sharpshooter Ian Clark, are one of the nastiest teams from distance in the Dance. Don't extend their defense, and Sean Miller's squad will fade to black quickly.
Fun facts/trends about the Big Dance:
• No team that has lost its opening-round conference tournament game has won the national title.
• Excluding 2009, at least one No. 2 seed has been eliminated in Round 2 every year since 1997. Last year, Duke and Missouri were victims.
• Thirteen 8/9 seeds have upended a No. 1 since 1985. Northern Iowa (2010) and Butler (2011) were the last to do it.
• No. 5 seeds have lost 34 percent of their first-round matchups since '85.
• No. 3 and No. 6 seeds beware. Four No. 11 seeds have reached the Sweet Sixteen since 2010.
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