No. 8 Gonzaga and … surprise! … Michigan will play Friday in the Battle 4 Atlantis title game at Imperial Arena on Paradise Island, Bahamas.
Picked to finish fifth in the preseason Big Ten Conference poll, Michigan (6-0) has used the Battle 4 Atlantis to make an early statement under first-year coach Juwan Howard.
Howard replaced John Beilein, and stars Jordan Poole, Charles Matthews and Ignas Brazdeikis also are gone from last year’s 30-win team.
“Granted, they’ve been very successful in the past,” Howard said following Thursday’s 73-64 semifinal victory against No. 6 North Carolina. “But to embrace a new staff and to be all in, I’m very thankful for that — because each and every one of them, they didn’t have to. It was a choice, but it was a choice because they trusted the staff, they trusted us as men to help lead them and teach them and develop them.”
Michigan’s style under Howard, who returned to his alma mater with NBA credentials as a longtime Miami Heat assistant, has pushed offensive tempo. The win over North Carolina marked six straight in which the Wolverines scored at least 70 points.
The Wolverines are third in the nation in field-goal percentage and No. 31 in adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom.com advanced metrics.
Some new faces have also responded when asked to step up, as was the case Thursday when senior Zavier Simpson fouled out. Eli Brooks scored 24 points and David DeJulius added 11.
“Zavier Simpson is a great player and a leader of our team,” DeJulius said. “Me and Eli said we were going to lead the team.”
Gonzaga (8-0) is coming off a 73-72 overtime victory in Thursday’s semifinal against Oregon. The Bulldogs led by 17 points in the early going against the No. 11 Ducks, and by five points with a minute left in regulation, before having to rally in overtime.
Center Filip Petrusev grabbed 15 rebounds and scored four of his 22 points to fuel Gonzaga’s overtime rally from down four points. He also showed off his versatility with a perfectly placed assist out of a double-team to a wide-open Corey Kispert, who made a critical 3-pointer late in regulation.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few has the option of countering a fast Michigan team with a big lineup, a strategy the Bulldogs employed against Oregon. Few often paired the 6-foot-10 Killian Tillie with 6-foot-11 Petrusev, utilizing the former in the high post and wing and Petrusev on the low block.
Having a healthy Tillie is a welcome luxury for Gonzaga after he sustained a knee injury in 2018. Tillie did not play in the Battle 4 Atlantis opener against Southern Miss.
“I think the main thing to put us over the top would probably be Killian’s health,” Kispert told the Spokesman Review before the season. “He’s just so lethal for us, you saw that two years ago. He’s so unbelievably talented and makes a big difference for us and the way we run offense.”
Tillie went out in the first half of a Sweet 16 loss to Florida State in the 2018 NCAA Tournament that, if it had won, would have matched Gonzaga up with Michigan.
–Field Level Media