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March 27, 2013Michigan passed its first two NCAA Tournament tests with flying colors. Now comes Kansas in the Sweet 16, a No. 1 seed with an elite shotblocker in seven-footer Jeff Withey and a supporting cast around him that knows how to defend.
In fact, they're experts at it, Michigan head coach John Beilein said. With four seniors and three freshmen, the Jayhawks have an "interesting mix" that works well together.
"You don't see four seniors much anymore," Beilein said. "That's why they were able to win the Big 12, its tournament and why they're a No. 1 seed.
"But they are 6-4, 6-6 and 6-5 on the perimeter, the point guard being 6-4. Withey is a big part of defensive field goal percentage, being so good. A blocked shot is a missed shot. Withey anchors it getting to the basket, but the other guys - when you play for Bill Self you learn to play defense. In four years, you get good at it. Withey gets the blocked shots, but that's a great team defensively, and every one of Bill's teams has been that."
Michigan can run with anyone - even Kansas - but they've got to get stops and rebounds in order to do it. Freshman Mitch McGary's postseason emergence has helped on the glass, but he's not alone. The Wolverines defended as well as they had all year in wins over South Dakota State and VCU.
More of that is what it will take to beat Kansas and advance to the Elite Eight.
"We preached about it all year long, but there's a process you go through defensively where the game has slowed down just over the last couple weeks," Beilein said. "We saw it in spots in the MSU game, saw it in the Indiana game here in spots. Every day is another step forward, but we put it together defensively in those two games. That creates our offense right now.
"You into the season saying, 'these guys are young. It's going to take a while so let's really work on our defense.' The fast break can be part of our offense. But [with different styles in the Big Ten], it's tough to make those changes two or three times sometimes in a week. As we fell into that, it was difficult. It sort of stagnates our offense, as well."
There will be plenty of halfcourt offense played Friday, too. Defense will be critical, but offensive efficiency is going to play a huge role for the winner, as well.
"They defend both [the threes and the twos]," Beilein said. "Threes are 30 percent. You're going to get some open shots, so it's really important you make those. You can't be missing lay-ups, wide-open threes too often. You have to nail those because you'll also get some tough twos."
And if it's not two windy at Cowboys stadium, Beilein quipped, he likes his team's chances.
"He's fine," Beilein said. "People are coming out and guarding him. He'll be fine. He makes shots in practice all the time. He could be a guy who could make seven in a row in this next round."
"Mitch has learned a great deal about that," Beilein said. "Eight minutes at Indiana was a serious wake up call that playing hard does not always mean playing smart. He had one bad one against South Dakota State, but he's learning that bad fouls affect not just my playing time, but my team.
"Withey is a new challenge, but Mitch has learned to use that big body. He's 256 pounds, his lightest all year, and he's learning to use those 256 pound and his feet."
He's also running the floor as well as he has all year. He was often the first one back on defense even after scoring against VCU, and he had plenty of energy left at the end.
"That has a lot to do with conditioning, and he's just been injury free," Beilein said. "He came in with little leg problem, but it worked itself out. But the biggest thing is his conditioning is better than it's been in a long time."
And he has plenty of energy. Beilein joked he's learned to count to five before addressing McGary on an issue, either good or bad. Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison even mentioned McGary after running into him on campus, insisting he's got his mind on him as a five-technique.
"I'm not going to share him," Beilein said with a smile. "There were a couple screens that did scare me a little bit, though. I was talking to Greg about him, and we compared him to Ted Hendricks, a guy they used to call "the mad stork."
"Finishing month five, two games a week - we know we're going to have peaks and valleys," Beilein said. "We have to ride them out, stay positive. Some days you have to talk truth to them about what's in front of you, what's happening - but there will only be four teams that didn't give in to a season of hard travels. Four are going to keep plugging. Why not us?"