Balanced attack leads Michigan basketball past Texas Southern; LSU next in NCAA tournament

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Orion Sang, Detroit Free Press
·4 min read
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Michigan basketball is moving on to the second round of the 2021 NCAA tournament.

The Wolverines defeated No. 16 seed Texas Southern, 82-66, on Saturday afternoon.

No. 1 seed U-M established an early lead and led by double digits for much of the first half and all of the second half.

The offense averaged 1.21 points per possession and had four players reach double digits, led by Mike Smith (18 points, five assists) and Hunter Dickinson (16 points on 6 of 7 shooting). Brandon Johns and Eli Brooks scored 11 apiece, and Franz Wagner filled the stat sheet with nine points, eight rebounds and six assists.

Michigan guard Mike Smith shoots against Texas Southern guard Michael Weathers during the first round of the NCAA tournament March 20, 2021.
Michigan guard Mike Smith shoots against Texas Southern guard Michael Weathers during the first round of the NCAA tournament March 20, 2021.

The Wolverines struggled with foul trouble and gave up a 7-0 run in the second half that cut their lead to 12 with 3:27 left — but Wagner hit a 3 with 1:52 to extend the lead to 15 and clinch the win.

With the win, Michigan will face No. 9 seed LSU on Monday after the Tigers defeated No. 8 seed St. Bonaventure, 76-61.

Johns continues to get to the line — and play well overall

The big question once Isaiah Livers was ruled out for an indefinite period of time with his foot injury: Who would step up in his absence?

So far, in the past two games, the answer has been Johns.

The junior forward started his second consecutive game in place of Livers and was once again noticeably aggressive on offense.

In Michigan's last contest, a one-point loss to Ohio State in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament, Johns shot eight free throws, making seven. Against Texas Southern, he got to the line with ease, attempting eight free throws — six in the first half alone. 16 of Johns 34 free-throw attempts this season have now come in the past two games. With how well Johns shoots at the line (82.4%), his ability to draw fouls has become a quietly consistent source of offense for Michigan in its two most recent outings.

In the second half, he made two consecutive plays by coming up with a steal and then canning a corner 3. Johns has always had talent (he was a former top-100 recruit who played well in spurts last season) but has struggled to show it consistently. It will be a big deal for Michigan if he continues to play this well.

U-M's depth on display

Michigan jumped out to its 18-point lead at halftime thanks to the team's depth. Eight of nine players who saw the court scored in the first 20 minutes, with five players scoring six or more points. The Wolverines emphasized post touches for Dickinson, who had a significant size advantage, but were still balanced on offense. Smith was aggressive in hunting for his shot, Wagner drove to the rim and either scored or found open teammates (four first-half assists) and Johns continued his recent trend of getting to the line, making five of six first-half free throws. Brooks made his first two 3s — and the Wolverines also got a pair of first-half 3s from freshman guard Zeb Jackson.

Michigan still tinkering with rotation

This is just the second game the Wolverines have played without Livers, so it's natural that the rotation looked a bit different than it has all season. In the first half, Michigan brought in Jackson, who was averaging 5.4 minutes in 14 total appearances before Saturday. Jackson unexpectedly gave Michigan a spark with his shooting by hitting two 3s — his first of the season. They were just his fourth and fifth field goals on the season, and his first field goal since Jan. 12.

A lineup featuring Eli Brooks, Jackson, Terrance Williams, Brandon Johns and Hunter Dickinson put together a quick 7-4 despite having never played together in a game before this season. Michigan doesn't need Jackson to hit two 3s in every game moving forward — but if he continues to play well off the bench, it can help the Wolverines find brief moments of rest for Smith or Brooks.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan basketball defeats Texas Southern in NCAA tournament opener