Often times in sports teams can suffer from a championship hangover. The grind and effort put in to make all the way to a title game sometimes can linger into the next season. Most times this hangover affects the losing team in a championship setting. They have to fight off the mental and physical fatigue of a deep postseason run and deal with the emotional letdown of being so close to winning it all. Despite losing to Villanova in last April’s title game, there has been no such hangover for the Michigan Wolverines this season. The back to back Big Ten Tournament champs have come out of the gates on fire in the 2018-19 campaign.
They smothered North Carolina this week, 84-67 in the ACC/BigTen Challenge, to move to 7-0 on the year. The Wolverines currently rank seventh in the nation and are trending upward. The hangover of losing in last year’s title game did not carry over into this season. Instead, Coach John Beilein’s team appears hungrier and laser focused each night. The disappointment from a coming up short in the Final Four is serving as motivation for this team as opposed to being an anchor weighing them down.
Michigan Wolverines Avoiding Runner-up Hangover
One of the best ways to fend off a hangover is experience. The Wolverines have plenty of that returning. They only lost three players from last year’s runners-up squad. Charles Matthews, Zavier Simpson, Jordan Poole and Jon Teske all return after playing pivotal roles last year. The experience and cohesiveness are evident when they are on the court. This team is defined by their discipline and execution. Like most veteran teams, their communication and positioning is a driving force for how they play. If opponents let the Wolverines run their sets on offense, they will get good shots more often than not. They execute with precision, their movement and passing have been excellent. This is a complete team; from the steady point guard play of Simpson to scoring options on the wing, to the interior presence of Teske.
The Wolverines don’t limit their crisp execution to the offensive end of the court. They have been suffocating on defense through seven games. They lead the nation allowing only 51 points a contest. North Carolina came to Ann Arbor averaging over 90 points a night, they left with a loss having only scored 67 points on 39 percent shooting. When watching this team it is evident they are well coached and know exactly where to be. One of the best compliments you can give a defense is that they are connected. A combination of awareness, communication and effort helps Michigan harass opponents into tough shots and bad offense.
Having an experienced and focused team is a nice luxury for Coach Beilein. He also has star players he can rely on to make things happen when plays break down. Junior Charles Matthews is averaging 15.4 points a game in the early season and is working towards an all-conference type of year. He has a versatile offensive game which allows him to score in multiple ways. He is a decent long-range shooter but is much more adept at slashing to the rim. The 6’6” wing also has a solid mid-range jumper that allows him to keep defenders off balance. He has three 20-point games in the first seven contests. Matthews will need to work on his free throw percentage, sitting at a mere 59 percent, because his attacking style will lead to him getting to the line often.
The biggest surprise for Michigan has been the play of freshman Ignas Brazdekis. The Lithuanian forward leads the team in scoring with 16.9 points a night. Even a quick glance at him on the court, it’s evident that he exudes the confidence needed to lead a team with the Wolverines aspirations. His smile and energy are infectious to his teammates. Brazdekis is a problematic match-up for defenses due to his shooting and driving ability. He has the toughness to finish in the paint, and being left handed just adds to the difficulty teams have matching up with him. Zavier Simpson provides them with a steady hand running the point, and he is averaging six assists a game setting up the likes of Matthews and Brazdekis.
Coach Beilein has led the Michigan Wolverines to two title game appearances during his 11-year tenure. The only thing left for him is to finally cut down the nets in April. He has led them to at least 20 wins in all but three seasons and has a chance to win both the Big Ten and make a run in March with this team. This team is disciplined and well connected on defense, and tough to guard on offense. They have a nice mix of experience and youth, but only seven guys play major minutes. Their depth may be tested due to foul trouble or fatigue as the season wears on, but otherwise, the Michigan Wolverines have all the components needed to challenge anyone they face.