In terms of positioning and perception, 2013-14 was groundbreaking for coach John Beilein’s Michigan Wolverines—especially their recent Big Ten gauntlet, which all but cemented the Maize and Blue among the league’s elite.
Without star guard Trey Burke, who went pro last year, the Wolverines won the conference’s regular-season crown; without Tim Hardaway Jr., another early departure, Beilein had yet another reliable corps of guards to lean on when times got tough; and without Mitch McGary, who sat all but eight games due to a back injury and subsequent surgery, they swept Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans..
But Beilein, the B1G co-COTY, fell short of the trifecta-sweep Sunday after losing the Big Ten Tournament title bout to Izzo, 69-55.
However, getting two of three wasn’t bad, not by any stretch.
Breaking out the brooms and whisking away its in-state brethren was a necessary statement by Michigan basketball, which has tirelessly labored to claim a permanent perch in the national spotlight.
They’re "on" and they "work."
The Wolverines are also here.
At Their House
Knocking off Wisconsin and Iowa wasn't enough for Beilein, who was about to go full-on season-defining with his third victory over a top 10 team…
Doing a season’s worth of damage from Jan. 18-25 was most definitely a "program" moment—but the grand finale came Jan. 25 when Beilein outmatched Izzo with Xs and Os en route to an 80-75 triumph at the Breslin Center, one of college basketball’s most unforgiving venues.
The debate of which team was better was settled, at least in part, on that day. For once, Michigan, which reached the 2013 national title game, could lay a concrete claim to No. 1 in the Great Lakes State.
"This is a great win for us because of who we were just able to beat," Beilein said after the win (via ESPN). "It's one of the classiest, best programs in the country."
Per ESPN, Izzo said "the better team won," and he was correct. Michigan was better, and it indeed scored more points, therefore earning the W.
But here’s how the Wolverines did it:
Derrick Walton scored a team-high 19 points, with three coming by way of late trio of free throws. The 6’1," 185-pound freshman also had six boards and four assists, instantly giving him cred as a diehard competitor who understands what’s at stake.
Of course, getting 16 points and eight rebounds from Caris LeVert, a 6’6," 185-pound sophomore, certainly helped. That game undoubtedly sent him into the Big Ten’s all-underclassmen conversation.
Nik Stauskas, a knock-down shooter from The Great North, chipped in with 19 points, including a 5-for-6 effort from beyond the arc. The 6’6," 205-pound sophomore won Big Ten POTY honors and made one of the greatest single-season leaps to stardom in Michigan history.
Defending Home Turf
So, they may have snagged one on the road, but the Wolverines weren’t going to go 2-0 for the year—or so it was thought.
Beating Izzo at the Bres was akin to a gold star on a child’s report card—it was just that important. However, even good teams get lucky, and the Wolverines were going to get a dose of their own medicine as Michigan State ran the court of the Crisler Center.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
After trailing 36-34 at the break, Michigan removed its head from the sand (or somewhere like that) and poured 45 on Michigan State’s ailing defense in the second half.
Although it was just a nine-point win, 79-70, it had the feel of something more—something close to, oh, what the Spartans did to Michigan a year earlier in East Lansing.
In all likelihood, Stauskas got a little pep talk at halftime—not only from Beilein and/or teammates, but from himself. After scoring just four points in the first 20 minutes, the Canadian Marksman—the real Canadian Marksman, sorry Brady Heslip—threw 21 at Michigan State and never looked back.
"I just came out with the mindset in the second half that I wasn't going to be stopped," said Stauskas (via ESPN), whose team faced an 11-point hole in the first half. "Once I made a couple shots, it kept going from there."
Continuing to show out, LeVert had 23 points. However, the top two came from a monstrous two-handed dunk from the baseline. At that particular moment, the Wolverines’ confidence was at an apex.
A sweep was eminent.
"The first game, I was very proud of our effort. This game, we looked tired," Izzo said (via ESPN). "I'm not very proud of our effort."
One coach defeated; the other elated.
Sunday’s Big Ten Tournament championship setback was just that—a mere setback. Michigan no longer has to prove that it can hang with the Spartans.
That much has already been proven.
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