The NCAA tournament barely had a chance to meet Oklahoma State, but it will miss the Cowboys dearly. Jawun Evans pushed the pace at warp speed and got to the rim whenever the mood struck. Coach Brad Underwood asked only one thing of his offense, and it was to go faster. Jeffrey Carroll forgot how to miss shots. Collectively, they stuck to their general defensive philosophy of conscientious objection, which enabled Michigan to unleash its own barrage.
In its two-hour cameo, Oklahoma State delivered the kind of game the NCAA tournament needed. The first day of the NCAA tournament can never be anything less than outstanding, but Thursday’s action provided nothing memorable. The first game of Friday involved the Cowboys, which meant it came alive in fluorescent colors. The final was 92-91, Michigan, the highest-scoring game yet, a thrill down to the final shot Evans bombed in from 30 feet at the buzzer, which meant more to some viewers than others.
The Louisville Cardinals had to be watching for the entire with dire thoughts. Mostly: “We have to play these guys in the second round?” It would not have mattered which guys they meant. Michigan shot like the Golden State Warriors in the Golden State Warriors’ most pleasant dreams. Oklahoma State played offense with a sense of electric desperation. They weren’t playing a lot of defense, but trying to outscore either side must have seemed like a high peak to scale.
Neither team had the faintest hope of stopping the other. The Wolverines won, pretty much, because they made threes while the Cowboys made twos. The only shame is the Cowboys won’t be around to make it happen again. This was not a fluke; this is how they play. They averaged 85.5 points this season while giving up 78. Their offense entered the tournament rated first in the country in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, dragging along a defense that sat at 135th.
Michigan was an opponent utterly capable of exploiting their worst vulnerabilities. Michigan launched threes from the moon and almost made every last one. Led by Derrick Walton Jr., who scored 26 points, Michigan made 11 of 15 three-pointers in the second half.
Against the backdrop of the first day, Michigan-Oklahoma State felt like some futuristic version of the sport. Half the teams in the field, judging from Thursday’s games, could not have matched the offensive output of either team while playing against air. Again: air was not a huge step down from the resistance the teams offered one another. But it was a great show, just when we needed one.
The only ones feeling letdown might be Louisville, presuming the Cardinals roll past Jacksonville State. The second-seeded Cardinals do not play their usual brand of suffocating defense this season, and Michigan is capable of beating anybody if it can approach the level of shooting it displayed Friday.
The Wolverines’ charmed run through the Big Ten tournament, in the wake of their team plane skidding off a runway, may not be finished yet. It’s just too bad Evans and the Cowboys of Oklahoma State are.