For 35 minutes everything was going right for Michigan. The offense was clicking, the defense was stifling, and it looked as though Michigan was going to walk away from the first of seven crucial games with an easy win over a fellow long-shot tournament team, the Northwestern Wildcats. Tim Hardaway, Jr. was dunking and dishing. Jordan Morgan appeared damn near unstoppable under the basket. Darius Morris was creating points for everyone around him. But there is no such thing as "an easy win" for this young Wolverine squad.
Leading by 15 points with just over five minutes to go in the second half, Michigan suddenly got cold. Stu Douglass and Darius Morris suddenly couldn't hold onto the all, as both committed two turnovers on Michigan's four ensuing possessions. And that was all Northwestern needed to go white hot from three. Four straight three pointers and a layup later, Michigan was holding onto a one point lead. Rewind to last year, hell, rewind to 10 games ago and this was usually Michigan folded up its tent and went home. Not this time.
Darius Morris drilled to crucial free throws to stretch the lead back to three points. And then Jordan Morgan took over. Blocking a JerShon Cobb, Morgan was rewarded on the other end of the floor by Tim Hardway for the layin. Then Morgan got involved with Darius Morris for a little show time.
Beating Northwestern up the floor on the left side of the court, Morris coolly sprinted up the floor. Only Northwestern's Luka Mirkovic was back on defense and stood between Morris and the basket. Directly behind Mirkovic stood Jordan Morgan who back pedalled off of Mirkovic to create space between himself, the rim and the defender. As Morris approached the arc, Mirkovic came out ever so slightly to guard the much quicker Morris. In doing so he left the backside wide open, toward which Morgan began to move. Then, Morris launched a pass, from left to right, just toward the right of the basket which an airborne Morgan happily, and authoritatively flushed for one of the prettiest alley-oops Michigan has seen since the days of the Fab Five.
All of a sudden Michigan's lead was comfortable again and the Wolverines walked off to thunderous applause and the realization that they are very definitely alive in the post season hunt.
One comment that seems to be repeated over and over again when speaking about the Wolverines is how much they've "grown up" over the course fo the season. With six games remaining on the schedule before the Big Ten tournament, Michigan seems tougher, more determined, and better organized than it has all year. The coaching has gotten better too. All of a sudden Michigan has a post presence and Beilein and Co. have been abusing teams with Morgan's presence at every opportunity. As much as Morris' show stopping play is responsible for kick starting Michigan's resurgence, Morgan's play down low seems to be the engine that's driving it now. Morgan has scored in double digits in 3 of the last four games. With Michigan finally finding an inside presence the rest of the offense seems to have picked up as well.
In particular, the play of Tim Hardaway, Jr. has aided in Michigan's recent streak. The lanky wing is shooting around 50% from the floor over his last four games. Against Northwestern he earned his first double double (17 points - 10 boards) and played perhaps his most complete game as a Wolverine. Hardaway seems to really be getting a feel for the college game and is not only finding ways to get himself open for shots or dunks, but is becoming a fairly adept passer as well.
In short, the Wovlerines are growing up before our eyes this season. Hard to believe that a starting lineup featuring two freshmen, a sophomore, and two juniors (one of which was only recently given the starting two guard spot) would be sitting at 15-10 with an outside chance at the NCAA tournament. It's even harder to believe it when this same team dropped 6 straight after starting the season out 10-2.
There's something there. Something different about this young team that reminds me a little bit of 2008-9 squad that went to the NCAA tournament. They're hungry. They're not content to rest on all the tailor made excuses of youth and inexperience. The 08-09 team was similar in that respect. But this team has something different. They're tough. Ever since that loss to five point loss to Minnesota at home, they've played with a chip on their shoulder. They've down the little things they have to do.
Will they make the tournament? Probably not. There's still too much work to do and too little time to accomplish it. But it's not impossible. Nor would it be improbable. It's just something that seems a hair out of reach right now. Like everything though, that could change. As this team continues to grow, to improve, and to mature, it's sure as hell going to be exciting to watch.