Reading through the papers and websites on Sunday it became abundantly clear that no one really knew how to put Michigan's unlikely sweep of Michigan State into words. Most of the coverage told Michigan fans how their team's 70-63 win was just a step in the right direction. Don't get too high. It's just a win. Michigan State is still Michigan State. Michigan is still rebuilding. The selection committee hasn't done anything yet, so don't get too excited. These are things you say to a high school student who comes home with a B on test they didn't have time to study for. Good job. You can do better next time. Just remember to budget your time more effectively. Remember, the tests get harder from here out.
You'll excuse me, but I'm going to get excited anyway.
For the first time since 1997 Michigan swept its season series with Michigan State. Since that time the Spartans have become one of the nation's premier basketball programs. Since Michigan's last sweep, the Spartans have gone to the NCAA Final Four six times, come in second once, and won the whole damn thing once. Michigan, in turn, has been investigated, placed on probation, had its tournament appearances stripped, and suffered through Brian Elerbe and Tommy Amaker. While I appreciate the efforts of fans and media alike to keep the Wolverines' win on Saturday in perspective, I think something crucial is being missed. If you want to keep things in perspective, think about just how far this program has come.
As much fun as it is to relive the glory of the Fab Five and remember how they "changed the game," I'll remember that it was certain members of that group that nearly landed Michigan the NCAA death penalty. I'll remember the emptiness of Crisler that followed those sanctions. I'll remember the parade of MAC level recruits and coaches that filled Michigan's bench as the program reached its bottom. Put simply, I remember just how dark things really were. And a couple of wins and fluff piece about the early 90's won't erase that. Michigan was in a dark, dank place. And the climb out of that darkness has been long and hard.
Two years ago Michigan fans thought we were finally out of the darkness. In John Beilein's second year as Michigan's head coach he'd led Michigan to wins over UCLA and Duke and into the NCAA tournament. We all knew this was years ahead of schedule, but we didn't care. We greedily took in the unexpected sun light as if it would be there forever, never realizing that a backslide from this unexpected success was required before Michigan could move forward.
That brought us to the 2010-2011 season. Beilein's fourth year. And it looked bleak. Devoid of any seniors, Michigan's upperclassmen consistent solely of juniors Zack Novak and Stu Douglass. Sophomore swingman Darius Morris was Michigan's only consistent scoring threat and the rest of Beilein's lineup consisted of little used sophomores, red-shirt freshmen and freshmen fresh off the bus from parts unknown. With the possible exception of Morris, at season's outset, there wasn't a potential star among them. Everyone knew Michigan would have trouble scoring. There was no post presence. They couldn't hit the side of a barn last season. It was a jump shooting team without a single person capable of getting into the lane or creating a shot. It was projected to be another dark season in Ann Arbor; even the Michigan partisans will admit that.
Yet this Michigan team reacted differently than any we have seen since the dark times began. They didn't care how young they were. They didn't care who they played. They wanted to win every game they played in. Instead of hitting the freshman wall, they burst right through it. Jordan Morgan gave Michigan its first legitimate defensive post presence in a decade. And it wasn't just grabbing rebounds, it was his wild atheticism, gorgeous baby hook, and freaktastic dunkage that made us all rise out of our seats. When he struggled with fouls a gangly freshman named Evan Smotrycz, a forward recruited for his outside shot, stepped up to become a solid post contributor and defender whilst draining threes and stretching defenses. Little used Matt Vogrich, a sharp shooter from Lake Forest, Illinois, became Beilein's first defensive replacement off the bench. He also remembered how to shoot, draining threes off of curls and set shots.
Then there was Stu Douglass. No longer counted on to guide Michigan from the point, he loosened up. His shot flowed smoother, his transition defense was better, he looked more comfortable. As for Novak... He never changed. He's remained the same 6'4" wonder that no one can explain. Despite being half a foot shorter than the rest of the conference's best rebounders, Novak is 11th in the conference in total rebounds. He doesn't care how many shots he hits or misses, if you leave him open he'll make you pay. If Michigan doesn't retire his number when he graduates, there is something seriously wrong with this world.
With all these contributors, all that was missing were scorers. And Beilein again had the answer. A lanky lightly recruited freshman from Miami named Tim Hardaway Jr. Emerging from a strange kind of mis-scouted purgatory, Hardaway has gone from lanky freshman to Big Ten star. Michigan suddenly had the shooter and slasher with antifreeze in his veins that it'd been missing all those years. With four freshman of the week Big Ten awards they might as well just rename the trophy in his honor.
These youngsters transformed a program that was being written off for another season into a team on the cusp of an NCAA tournament invitation.
Saturday's game was a game of runs and emotion. Michigan was up big early and watched their lead slowly dwindle. But it wasn't the stars that were building and securing Michigan's lead at the time. It was the complimentary players. Blake McLimans drained a critical jumper. Evan Smotrcyz was surprisingly dominant defensively, picking pockets and converting lay-ins for critical points. At the half Michigan was up 8 on its arch rival, but everyone knew a run from the Spartans was coming.
And it did. But Michigan had the answer. Tim Hardaway found his stroke and poured in 20 critical points. And then there was Michigan's other star, Darius Morris. Morris is arguably the nation's most improved player and the player without whom Michigan would be lost without. Early in the game he was obviously out of sorts. Angry. Impetuous. But just like Hardaway, Morris saved his best for last. Draining critical free throws and dishing gorgeous assists, Morris finished with 13 points and 6 assists, and a highlight reel end to end lay-up to seal the game for good.
This wasn't a freshman team anymore. It wasn't a young team. Nor was it one wallowing in the darkness. This team is a confident, aggressive team with a swagger it has earned from the ups and downs of an amazing season. In their last 11 games they are 8-3, with the first and last of those wins coming against Michigan State. They've closed hot, and two of their losses were by a total of three points.
Certainly there are reasons to curtail our enthusiasm. Anything can happen in the Big Ten Tournament. Other teams can get hot around the country and slots can fill up. Besides, Michigan State is Michigan State. They're bringing in an even better recruiting class next season, and lord knows they'll circle these games even more than before. We don't know what will happen, so perhaps it is best to maintain an even keel.
I'm sorry, no.
I'm going to revel in this one. This team has earned that. They took it directly at their tormentor and whipped him at his own game. They played with confidence and swagger as if they didn't know or care that this was a big deal for their fans. They didn't just want this game, they played like it was theirs all along and the Spartans were just in the way of the inevitable. There is fire in this team, and it shown brightly on Saturday.
After more than a decade in the darkness, you'll pardon me if I do get excited.