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March 27, 2014

Wolverines still proving themselves to the nation

Tennessee has won eight of its last nine games, Michigan nine of its last 10. Something's got to give in Friday night's Sweet 16 match-up, and it could be the little things that make the difference.

Such as Michigan's experience on the big stage. Many of the Wolverines were on last year's team that made it to the national championship game before falling to Louisville in front of 75,000 people. Having been there doesn't hurt, guards Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht said before Thursday's practice at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

"Just speaking from experience of being in this - there are so many new things that come into your life, things like this that can be not only distracting, but maybe just a little awesome for young men to be involved with," head coach John Beilein said. "Jordan Morgan and Glenn Robinson, they have done this before, so I think that that part allows them to just focus on the game.

"This is not something that they're dreading, all the media attention. They've been through it. They survived it, and now they just go play basketball. I think that helps a lot. Getting used to the 10‑minute walk from your locker room to the floor can be something kids aren't used to, so they're used to that."

If there's an advantage, Beilein said, that's it. The game is played on the floor, obviously, and Tennessee has been playing very well. The Volunteers squeaked by Iowa in overtime before blasting UMass and Mercer and are a popular pick for a Sweet 16 upset.

They enter 17th in the country in points allowed per game (61.4), and they've scored over 80 in each of their last two games.

"Their defense is terrific, and I'm not surprised at all," Beilein said. "I do not know [Tennessee coach] Cuonzo [Martin] very much, but I do know he played with Robinson, Jr., and knowing that he comes from the Gene Keady, Matt Painter type of background, I watched his teams. They're going to guard. As they build this program, they're going to build it off their defense. It is very, very good.

"You look at their 40 percent field goal defense percentage and it's terrific, but I like also what he's done offensively in that there's great diversity to their game. There's a great mixture of inside/outside, and because sometimes your offense is your defense, because you're scoring buckets like they do, you can set your D."

Much of the talk has been about Tennessee's length and athleticism and granted, the Volunteers have an advantage in that department. So have many other teams the Wolverines faced this year on the way to a runaway Big Ten championship.

U-M didn't get much respect before handling a bigger Texas team, and many are questioning them prior to Friday night's contest (including one usher on press row. "Now here comes a real team!" he said when Louisville took the floor to practice after Michigan finished).

"We've been facing teams that had a little bit of length, especially in the Big Ten on the perimeter," sophomore Glenn Robinson III said. "Also, they have a bunch of big guys who can get work done inside, so we faced that. A lot of people said the same thing about Texas.

"I think that it will just come down to will, just like the same game as last time - how bad do we want it? We have to go out there with the right mindset, and I think we prepared well and I think the coaches did a great job on the scout."

Their length is unique, sophomore Nik Stauskas added, and will pose some problems. At the same time, he said, it's how his team plays that will determine whether or not they get to continue to play. Tennessee's lengthy Josh Richardson will get the call to slow Stauskas and he's formidable, but Stauskas has played well against a number of outstanding players.

"From what I've seen on film and what I've heard, he's a really good defender, but that's nothing new," Stauskas said. "I've been facing really good defenders all year long throughout the Big Ten season.

"I've done a good job of adjusting to different ways that teams have been playing me. My teammates and coaches have done a great job of helping me adjust to those kind of things."

Beilein agreed, downplaying the size disadvantage.

"There are some times that matchups are really important and sometimes I don't think they mean a darn thing," he said. "There are going to be times in this game where it's going to be a one‑on‑one situation and who's playing who and how well they can guard the other guy. There are tremendous matchups in just in rebounding, et cetera.

"But the actions they do, the actions we do, they negate a lot of those matchups because both teams basically are trying to create leverage for their players, where a matchup is now a guy's one step behind. So that's how it is with basketball. It's not, 'hey, this is going to be a one‑on‑one.' No, we're trying to get leverage. Cuonzo is trying to get leverage for his team, so it's not one‑on‑one, it's one on half of one and everybody's got to rotate."

The 11 seed has made it this far, and you don't get here by accident, both Robinson III and Stauskas noted. They've got Michigan's full attention, and though there are a few players left from the team U-M thrashed by 30 points in the NCAA Tournament four years ago, it's not the same squad.

"I think they're similar, but I think they just have a different coach and different style of play and they're much more motivated to play this time," fifth-year senior Jordan Morgan said. "They've been playing really well lately."

So have the Wolverines, setting up what many believe could be a great game Friday.


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