ANAHEIM, Calif. — Smothered by Texas Tech's airtight defense for most of the night, Michigan finally seemed to find the advantage it needed.
Matt Mooney fell trying in vain for a steal beyond the 3-point arc on one second-half possession, leaving the Wolverines with the equivalent of a hockey power play.
Michigan point guard Zavier Simpson surveyed the floor and spotted freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis free on the baseline. Brazdeikis went up for a layup only to have 6-foot-5 Deshawn Corprew swoop in from behind and block his shot, the quintessential metaphor for a night when the Wolverines could scarcely get a shot off, let alone get one to fall.
In a battle between maybe the two best defenses in college basketball on Thursday night, Texas Tech's proved to be more impenetrable. Not only did a 63-44 rout secure Texas Tech a crack at top-seeded Gonzaga in Saturday's West regional final, it also served as a reminder that the Red Raiders' stifling defense could be very hard for even the high-scoring Zags to solve.
Michigan didn't reach double figures until more than 14 minutes into the first half, didn't break 20 until after the first TV timeout of the second half and didn't hit 30 until eight minutes remained in the game. By that time the Wolverines already trailed by 25 points and the Red Raiders were well on their way to a second straight Elite Eight.
"I'd definitely say that was the best defense I've seen my whole career at Michigan," sophomore forward Isaiah Livers said. "They were really good guarding individually. They did a great job stopping our ball screen. They switched everything, so a lot of shooters couldn't get open. They knew the scouting report. They knew who the shooters were. They knew who the drivers were. They just played it to a tee."
In a tear-stained locker room, Michigan players tried to make sense of how Texas Tech held a 30-win team coached by offensive mastermind John Beilein to 32.7 percent shooting and the fewest points ever by a No. 2 seed. Some tried in vain to suggest that it was largely a result of missed open shots. Others admitted Texas Tech's exceptional defense played a big role in the poor shooting.
"We had a lot of shots go in and out, but give credit to their defense" said Michigan center Jon Teske. "They use their length well, they're active around the ball, they switch ball screens, they pressure you. They're really tough to beat."
The core principle of the defense Texas Tech coach Chris Beard runs is to surrender nothing in the middle of the floor. The Red Raiders wall off the middle of the floor, funnel dribble penetration to the sideline and baseline and rotate and communicate on help defense like they've played together for years, not months.
While Texas Tech's aggressiveness makes it a bit foul-prone, the Red Raiders compensate by generating the 11th-most turnovers in the country and also surrender almost nothing easy at the rim. Long, bouncy forward Tariq Owens is an elite rim protector, future lottery pick Jarrett Culver is a perimeter stopper and Mooney excels forcing turnovers in the role of a roving free safety.
Anytime Michigan has faced a team that switches ball screens this season, the Wolverines have always found a matchup to exploit. It might be point guard Zavier Simpson against an immobile big man. Or Brazdeikis against a smaller guard in the post.
There were few mismatches to be found against Texas Tech. None of the Wolverines could consistently win 1-on-1 matchups against any of the Red Raiders.
"You can pick on the bad defender against most teams, but they don't have a weak defender on the floor," Michigan assistant coach Saddi Washington said. "All five guys, even when they switch, they do a good job of moving their feet and keeping the ball in front. It's tough to get downhill and exploit a mismatch.”
The few times a Michigan guard did get downhill, force the defense to collapse and kick out to a 3-point shooter, it still seldom led to points. The Wolverines went 1-for-19 from behind the arc, a product of cold shooting to be sure but also the quick rotations of long-armed Texas Tech defenders.
Things didn't get much better for Michigan when Beilein drew up a set play. Coming off a second-half timeout, Zavier Simpson tried to take it to the rim against Mooney, but his heavily contested floater barely grazed glass.
"Some of the things we thought we were going to do, it was like they were in our huddle," Livers said. "They knew what we were going to do and they took it away. Our ball-screen plays or our off-ball screen-away play, they played them how we didn't want them to play it and it messed us up. They'd get a finger on the ball, a block, a steal, a turnover or we just hoisted something up at the end of the shot clock."
The lingering question in the wake of Texas Tech's third straight rout of the NCAA tournament is whether the Red Raiders can keep shutting down some of the elite teams left in the field. Can a program that had never been to the Elite Eight before last year ride its formidable defense to a Final Four or even a national championship?
Gonzaga's multifaceted offense will pose a bigger test than Michigan's did, but the Wolverines to a man aren't discounting Texas Tech's chances. Not after 40 demoralizing minutes trying in vain to score against the Red Raiders — once even with a 5-on-4 advantage.
"They've got an experienced team that is committed to their philosophy of playing defense," Washington said. "I could see them having a really good run in this tournament."
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