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March 23, 2012Despite his team's continually strong success year after year, head coach Red Berenson likes to sell his team on playing the underdog role. It worked for the Wolverines in 2010 and 2011, but when the NCAA Tournament starts tonight, Michigan will be the favorite to win the Midwest Regional ...
That comes with the territory as the No. 1 seed in the regional and the No. 2 overall seed in the entire 16-team tournament. It's a role the Maize and Blue, who had been playing catch-up during the entire regular season after a 1-6-1 stretch in November, were forced to play during the CCHA semifinals and finals March 16-17.
And it did not suit them, as the Wolverines fell behind 2-0 to Bowling Green in the semis before rallying for a 3-2 overtime win, and 3-0 to Western Michigan in the finals before falling 3-2.
Once again, though, Berenson is preaching to his team that it is not as good as its seed and should not take a Cornell team that finished second in the ECAC and is 18-8-7 overall lightly.
"We're pretty humble, and it's not like we've had a great year," Berenson said. "I'm surprised and I think our team is surprised that we're as high as we are in the Pairwise.
"There is not that much difference between the teams. I think our team is humble enough to realize that everybody in our region is good. Ferris State finished first in our league and here we are No. 1 and they're a No. 2. I don't think our team is going in there thinking we're better than anyone else."
Michigan has been the No. 1 seed in a regional six times during the past 21 NCAA Tournaments (this being the seventh in 22 trips) and advanced to the Frozen Four four times, while losing in the first round only once, in 2009, to Air Force.
In that game, the Wolverines were bounced 2-0 because they couldn't put one of their numerous early chances past goalie Andrew Volkening, and with every missed opportunity and passing minute, coupled with a bad first goal given up to the Falcons late in the first period, the pressure mounted and U-M could not answer.
Cornell will likely look to replicate Air Force's game plan to best the Maize and Blue - focusing on defense, defense, defense, and counterattacks offensively. The Big Red rank 23rd nationally in scoring, averaging just 2.91 goals per game (U-M is 10th with 3.25) but are 12th in defense, permitting just 2.27 goals per game (Michigan is fourth with 2.15).
If Cornell can strike first, and can hold Michigan at bay through the first 20 minutes, the weight of expectations could overwhelm the Wolverines.
"It's tough to dig a hole for yourself and have to come out of it," senior center David Wohlberg said. "Coach is really stressing getting a jumpstart on teams, getting the first goal and then playing with the lead and growing that lead.
"It's not as much fun to play from behind and the team sort of tightens up - guys do not play as comfortable as when we have the lead."
U-M enters the tournament having lost its last game, to Western, but the season starts anew tonight and that defeat is of no consequence. The Wolverines also promise they won't get caught looking ahead to a Saturday's Midwest Regional finals matchup with either Ferris State or Denver.
"We have to take care of Friday first," sophomore forward Luke Moffatt said. "We can't get ahead of ourselves thinking if we're playing Denver or Ferris. It's just all about Cornell right now."
Michigan must simply play its game and allow its talent advantage take over; the Wolverines boast five goal scorers with at least 10 goals while Cornell has two. But most of all, U-M must embrace its role as the No. 1 seed, forcing its opponent to match the Wolverines' intensity and skating, instead of playing down to the Big Red.
"We're talking a lot about that, to have that confidence, knowing we are a No. 1 seed, but still playing desperate, playing relentless, like an underdog, like we did last year," sophomore defenseman Jon Merrill said. "We want to play our game."
TV: The puck drops at 9:00 p.m. and the game can be seen live on ESPNUHD or ESPN3.com. Friday's first Midwest Regional semifinal starts at 5:30 p.m. and can be seen on ESPN3.com.
Michigan State (vs. Union) and Miami (vs. UMass-Lowell) can also be seen today with the MSU game at 3:00 p.m. on ESPNUHD/ESPN3 and the Miami game airing at 6:00 p.m. on both TV/Web site.
NCAA Prediction: Here is my bracket for the NCAA Tournament.
Northeast Regional, March 24-25
No. 1 Boston College over No. 4 Air Force
No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth over No. 3 Maine
Minnesota-Duluth over Boston College
West Regional, March 24-25
No. 4 Western Michigan over No. 1 North Dakota
No. 2 Minnesota over No. 3 Boston U.
Minnesota over Western Michigan
East Regional, March 23-24
No. 1 Union over No. 4 Michigan State
No. 2 Miami over No. 3 UMass-Lowell
Miami over Union
Midwest Regional, March 23-24
No. 1 Michigan over No. 4 Cornell
No. 3 Denver over No. 2 Ferris
Michigan over Denver
Frozen Four, April 5-7
Minnesota-Duluth over Minnesota
Michigan over Miami
Minnesota-Duluth over Michigan