Saturday, March 5, 2011
Michigan's incredible journey to the brink of the Big Dance
Before considering what Michigan’s 70-63 win over Michigan State Saturday means for their NCAA Tournament chances, ask yourself this:
Could you have ever imagined this prior to the season and especially six Saturdays ago?
On that afternoon, the Wolverines were dominated at home by Minnesota. They fell to 1-6 in the Big Ten. The team was a mess. The season wasn’t headed anywhere.
What’s transpired since then isn’t short of amazing. Fueled by a players-only meeting, the Wolverines traveled to East Lansing five days later and shocked the Spartans, winning at the Breslin Center for the first time since 1997.
And they’ve carried that momentum since then, winning seven of 10 games to finish the regular season 19-12 and 9-9 in the Big Ten.
The most incredible part? This is a young, inexperienced team.
You just don’t see this from freshman-dominated teams playing in such a difficult league like the Big Ten — easily the second toughest conference in the nation.
Maybe there is, but I’m having a difficult time thinking of a team nationally that has grown as much as the Wolverines during such a short time period.
No victory has come easily to this young group — and many have had an ugly side — but the Wolverines have found a way to win ’em. Pulling out close games isn’t usually a trait of a green team, but these Wolverines have gotten it done.
The close losses might stand out more because of their heartbreaking nature — the two-point defeat at Illinois; the shot-put 3-point buzzer-beater delivered by Wisconsin — but seven of Michigan’s wins during the streak have been by nine or fewer points and four by four or less points.
This team knows how to win tight games.
Against the Spartans, the Wolverines were dominated on the boards (44-25), shot just 5-for-19 from 3-point range and missed the front ends of two 1-and-1 opportunities at the free-throw line.
And they won by seven! There’s no way that’s the case early this season.
This is a complete team. It doesn’t need to make a ton of 3s to win — a central thought earlier this season.
It doesn’t rebound very well — although it’s been much better than Saturday’s pitiful performance — but makes up for it by taking great care of the ball (despite the rebounding disparity, Michigan State took just 11 more shots and Michigan attempted 11 more free throws; the Wolverines had just seven turnovers).
Tommy Amaker’s biggest weakness as Michigan’s coach was his inability to develop players. They didn’t improve from game to game, year to year. That, clearly, isn’t a problem for John Beilein. In fact, it’s a strength.
Just watch Tim Hardaway Jr.., the player who has most fueled Michigan’s late-season success. During the first two thirds of Michigan’s schedule, Hardaway was a talented player with horrible shot selection, buttery hands, and an ineffective outside jumper.
Seriously. I know it’s hard to believe now, but I would cringe every time he attempted a 3-pointer.
Against the Spartans, Hardaway was Michigan’s second-half offense. He scored all 20 of his points in the final 20 minutes and made the biggest play of the game, feeding Jordan Morgan for a dunk off a pick-and-roll after Michigan State cut its game-long deficit to 56-54 with 5 minutes, 48 seconds remaining and had all the momentum.
The Spartans never got closer (although in typical Wolverines fashion, the game wasn’t decided, really, until the final 10 seconds).
Now when Hardaway takes any shot, there’s no cringing. The kid’s a player and is only going to get better in Beilein’s system.
That’s the key. Every Wolverine is improving. Player development at its best.
And they’ve learned how to play cohesive defense. They were abysmal during the 1-6 start to the Big Ten slate. There was miscommunication on the court. Players didn’t talk and consistently left shooters open.
On Saturday, the Wolverines held the Spartans to 32.8-percent shooting. If they rebounded, they would have blown them out of Crisler Arena.
Did I mention they don’t win easily? Well, whatever. Bottom line: The Wolverines have developed into a tough, confident, NCAA Tourney-bound? team. (They could be in now, but beating Illinois in their first Big Ten tournament game would seal a bid.)
And they’ve got a little swag. As Morris received the ball with a little over 10 seconds left in the backcourt, he shredded a pair of Spartans with behind-the-back moves then, seeing the lane wide open, took it to the hoop and finished things with a silky finger roll.
Necessary? Not at all. Classless? Perhaps.
But considering what this team’s accomplished in three fortnights, a little icing on the cake just seemed appropriate.