Michigan Rolls Through Madison Square Garden

Those of us who consider ourselves Big Ten purists have generally disliked the conference’s decision to play its basketball tournament in the major markets of the East the last two seasons, going to Washington D.C. last year and Madison Square Garden this season. It’s safe to say that any purists among the Michigan fan base have gotten over it though—for the second straight year, the Wolverines came from the middle of the pack to win the tournament.

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Michigan was a 5-seed in this year’s tournament, although that is somewhat deceptive—they went 13-5 in league games and were tied with Nebraska for fourth. The tiebreakers gave the Cornhuskers the bye into the quarterfinals, but the Wolverines were the one that arrived in New York City as an NCAA Tournament lock and no one who watched Big Ten basketball this season could have been surprised when Michigan dismantled Nebraska 77-58 on Friday afternoon.

That’s because the Wolverines demonstrated themselves during the season to be on a par with the league’s three best teams—Purdue, who spent much of the year looking like the best team in the country. Ohio State who seemed to have the regular season title in hand before a late fade and has the conference’s best player in Keita Bates-Diop. And Michigan State, the most talented and best-coached team of them all that ultimately prevailed in the regular season race.

During the regular season, Michigan beat both Michigan State and Ohio State, and lost two sizzling games to Purdue that were both among the regular season’s best. Given another chance in Sunday’s final, the Wolverines beat the Boilermakers 75-66 in a game that was well under Michigan’s control by midway through the second half.

The tournament run was not a surprise to any of us who have seen this Michigan team in action. They have all the elements—a good post player in Moe Wagner, sharp perimeter shooting and aggressive playmakers. The backcourt of Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Charles Matthews has size (they go 6’4” and 6’6” respectively) and athleticism. Rahkman can shoot the three-ball, as can 6’8” Duncan Robinson. For the matter so can Wagner (pronounced “Vog-ner”) who hails from Germany and has draw comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki, the best player his nation ever produced, in terms of size and ability to step outside and shoot.

Michigan is also exceptionally well-coached and John Beilein has a track record of performing in March. He played for a national title in 2013, got to an Elite Eight one year later and the Sweet 16 last year. Beilein also took West Virginia on a run to the Elite Eight in 2005 before losing in overtime to Louisville.

The Wolverines are now projected as a 3-seed by ESPN Joe Lunardi. There’s really only two possible hangups regarding picking them to go deep into March Madness. The Big Ten’s decision to play its tournament a week early so they could get into Madison Square Garden (the Big East has its traditional time there this weekend) will break Michigan’s momentum.

I also tend to be a little skeptical of teams that do the 4-wins-in-4-days (or 5-in-5) in a league tournament. It’s tough to win that many games in a row when you are, by definition, not a dominant team (if you were, you wouldn’t have had to play that many games to begin with). But then again, maybe the week off will let Michigan regroup and emotionally refocus, rather than having to come back four days later still in celebratory mode. It will be interesting to see how this extra week off affects conference teams and Michigan is the biggest test case in the laboratory.

Regardless of what happens in the NCAA Tournament though, the value of winning a league tournament banner should not be underestimated or seen as only the means to the end of a higher seed. Michigan’s achievement of this season, particularly placed in the context of making the same run last year, is truly impressive and deserves plaudits in its own right.

Other thoughts on Big Ten teams coming out of New York…

*Michigan State’s loss to Michigan in Saturday’s semifinals was exactly what the Spartans needed, although the players probably don’t feel that way. I just can’t imagine having a week to sit around with Tom Izzo reminding you of how you lost a second time to your archrival is the most pleasant way to spend practice time. I wrote in this space last week about how the only thing that could derail Sparty in March would be a lack of focus on rebounding or defense and a head coach having a week-plus to shove this loss in his team’s face is the ideal antidote. I’ll be picking Sparty to at least reach the Final Four.

*Then again, my endorsement is not exactly a blessing. In February, I wrote about Purdue and said I was picking the Boilermakers to win a national championship. Purdue hasn’t been the same team since—admittedly, my picking a team has proven a very difficult historical burden to bear. But the Boilermakers never really looked impressive in reaching the tournament final. They got two bracket breaks in drawing Rutgers and Penn State and didn’t control the boards in either one. Then Purdue let Michigan shoot 50 percent in Sunday’s final. The Boilermakers definitely need the time off to refocus themselves.

*Penn State and Nebraska were the teams with the pressure on, needing wins to impress the NCAA selection committee. If you take Joe Lunardi seriously—and I certainly do—both fell short. Nebraska probably needed to beat Michigan and Penn State likely needed to at least make the final. Lunardi currently has each on his “Next Four Out” list, meaning he projects the Lions and Cornhuskers to be anywhere from 5-8 spots away from making the field. That’s close enough to be interesting, but suggests the conference will have only four teams in the field this season.

*Rutgers had a nice run in their own backyard, beating Minnesota and Indiana, then leading Purdue at the half before finally losing. But this merely underscores how much the Scarlet Knights underachieved. With talent like Corey Sanders and DeShawn Freeman, Rutgers should have at least been able to get on a par with Penn State and Nebraska during the season and made the conference tournament interesting.

*Regarding Minnesota—can we finally drop all pretense that Richard Pitino Jr. is a legitimate power conference coach? He had one of the league’s best inside players in Jordan Murphy, was expected to contend for the regular season championship and instead produced an absolute disaster. Other than having a famous (if now discredited) father, I don’t see what Pitino has ever done to earn a job the quality of Minnesota. Or why the Golden Gophers felt they were getting an upgrade in letting go of a proven winner in Tubby Smith.

*Indiana’s loss to Rutgers was ugly and simply must mark the end of Archie Marshall’s first-year honeymoon in Bloomington. He got a pass because after Tom Crean, most anyone could have looked like an Xs and Os genius by comparison. And to Marshall’s credit, his teams competed hard each time out. They were hindered mainly by a lack of outside shooting, which can be pinned on Crean’s shocking inability to recruit his home state. So I’m okay with Marshall getting a pass on this season, but the expectations have to jump back up for next year. Juwan Morgan is a stud and there have to be some Indiana farm kids that Marshall can bring in to knock down a three or hit a free throw.

*As a Wisconsin fan, let me close off by saying how pleased I was with the way the Badgers closed an otherwise ugly season. This was going to be a tough year no matter what—losing four key seniors left Greg Gard in a tough spot, and then his two best guards were injured early on. It turned the lineup into Ethan Happ and a group of no-names. But those no-names, notably Brad Davison, kept battling, got better and ended the year on a nice run. There will be some heat on Gard going into next year to get back into the Dance, but any doubts about the Wisconsin coach can only about recruiting—there’s no question he can get kids to play to their max potential.