There was a vulnerable No. 1 seed, but it wasn’t Michigan. Not yet, at least.
The narrative was about the right conference, but the wrong team. Illinois, it turned out, was the Big Ten power in danger of failing to get through the first weekend.
Despite the absence of star wing Isaiah Livers (foot), the Wolverines are still alive, reaching their fourth consecutive regional semifinal with an impressive 86-78 victory over No. 8 LSU at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
“We knew we had enough in the locker room to get to the Sweet 16,” senior guard Eli Brooks said after Michigan booked an East Region semifinal showdown with No. 4 Florida State on Sunday.
He helped make sure of it.
Brooks and Chaundee Brown helped fill the considerable void left by Livers, each producing a season-high 21 points, as the Wolverines overcame a slow start. If it wasn’t Brooks or Brown, it was Frantz Wagner coming alive down the stretch, scoring nine of his 13 points in the final 4:27. Big Ten Freshman of the Year Hunter Dickinson typically owned the paint with 12 points, 11 rebounds and three assists. All eight Michigan players who got off the bench scored, and its reserves produced a massive 26-2 edge.
“You can’t fill the void of Isaiah because of what he provides on the floor with his shooting, his length, his leadership, his experience,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “But we knew once he went down that every guy had to step up.”
It was enough to overcome talented, but not very deep LSU (19-10), which got a combined 57 points from star guards Cameron Thomas and Javonte Smart, and little else.
Michigan (22-4) flipped the game with a 14-1 run late in the second half, turning a five-point deficit into a commanding eight-point advantage after eight straight points from Brown with 5:57 left. He hit two 3-pointers and knocked down two free throws, providing a cushion LSU wouldn’t be able to overcome.
The Wolverines had too many weapons, too much depth and wore down the Tigers in the final minutes. Although Thomas and Smart nearly scored 60 points between them, they shot a combined 20-for-46, and didn’t have enough in the tank down the stretch for one final run.
With the win, Michigan became the first — and only — Big Ten team to reach the second weekend after the powerhouse conference sent nine teams to the dance, and saw eight eliminated. The Wolverines didn’t pay much attention to that. They were more focused on getting out of the opening weekend for the fourth straight tournament.
“That’s what we expect at Michigan,” Brooks said. “But you have to earn it. It only gets more fun from here.”