In tourney's toughest region, can Wolverines return to Final Four?

In tourney's toughest region, can Wolverines return to Final Four?
March 18, 2014, 8:45 pm
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Vinnie Duber

B1G March Madness

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Last year, Michigan reached the Final Four and the national championship game as a four-seed.

A season later, you'd figure their two-seed status would mean an easier road back to the top of the college basketball mountain, right? That's not necessarily the case.

Yes, last season's journey to the end of the tourney featured matchups against VCU, Kansas, Florida and Syracuse. But this year's road is equally treacherous, if not more so. The Midwest Region in this year's tournament is downright deadly. Michigan is a strong two-seed, but joining the Wolverines are No. 1 Wichita State, No. 3 Duke, No. 4 Louisville, No. 5 Saint Louis, No. 6 UMass, No. 7 Texas and No. 8 Kentucky.

It's a difficult group, so how can the Wolverines survive?

What Michigan has going for it is its offensive prowess. With all the weapons and all the great shooters, the Wolverines can score with anybody. Nik Stauskas is the Big Ten Player of the Year, and he's joined by a pack of sharpshooters in Glenn Robinson III, Caris LeVert and Zak Irvin. Even point guard Derrick Walton Jr. can get hot. Defense has been an issue, though the Wolverines sometimes don't need it with the amount of points they pour in.

What could be worrisome for maize-and-blue supporters is how the Wolverines fared against other tournament-bound foes this season. Yes, they took care of business during the conference season, going 8-3 in 11 games vs. the Big Ten's other five teams that made the Big Dance, but they went just 1-3 during the non-conference schedule. Granted, those games were all to teams who ended up getting three-seeds or higher — No. 1 Arizona, No. 3 Iowa State and No. 3 Duke — but remember how stacked the Midwest is. And, a rematch with Duke could come in the Sweet Sixteen.

So can the Wolverines play more like they did during the Big Ten season now that opponents will come from somewhere other than the Big Ten?

[MORE: Seasoned Badgers well prepared for long tourney run]

First up

There might be no team with a less intimidating name than the Wofford Terriers, but that didn't seem to matter as Michigan's second-round opponent did a whole lot of winning over the second half of its season. Since back-to-back losses to Chattanooga in mid-January, the Terriers went 13-2 over their final 15 games, leading to a Southern Conference championship. In two games against NCAA tournament teams this season, Wofford went 0-2 (Saint Louis and VCU).

Survive and advance

Should the Wolverines get by the Terriers — and it goes without saying that they're expected to — the difficult Midwest Region throws a lot at them in a hurry. Next up would be the winner of No. 7 Texas and No. 10 Arizona State. And beyond that, a rematch with Duke could loom in the Sweet Sixteen. That would be a game circled in everybody's TV listings. The Dukies won by 10 back on Dec. 3, with Stauskas having a four-point performance. He played 34 minutes but took just two shots in that game. You can be sure Stauskas would look forward to being able to grab some redemption.

[RELATED: Can suddenly strong Spartans win it all?]

One shining moment

And speaking of Stasukas, he's the most dangerous offensive threat for the Wolverines. He averaged 17.5 points this season and turned in 13 20-plus-point outings, including all three of Michigan's final regular-season games. The Wolverines went 11-2 when Stauskas scored 20 or more, and that'll be a good stat to look for as the tournament rolls on.

As prolific a scorer as Stauskas has been this season, though, he's been bothered by opposing defenses at times. In a five-game stretch in February that saw the Wolverines go 2-3, opposing defenses briefly figured Stauskas out and limited him to an average of 10.2 points per game and 13-of-35 shooting (37.1 percent).

How far can they get?

The Wolverines have had a terrific season, weathering the loss of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to the NBA and Mitch McGary to back surgery en route to a regular-season Big Ten championship. Their offensive talent means they can hang with any foe, even in an extremely difficult part of the bracket. But it's that gauntlet that Michigan would have to go through that makes a return trip to the championship game and even the Final Four seem unlikely. Still, the Wolverines are deserving of that two-seed and more than capable of proving it.