Game 28: Michigan Wolverines 75 - Iowa Hawkeyes 72
Michigan 17-11 (7-8), 6th in Big Ten Conference
Remaining Regular Season Games: 2/23 Wisconsin Badgers, 2/26 @ Minnesota Golden Gophers, 3/5 Michigan St. Spartans
If you're a team without a single Senior on your roster, and play only two upper-classmen with any regularity, you're probably not a team anyone expected to be in the NCAA tournament discussion when the basketball season commenced. Yet, with three games left in the Big Ten season, Michigan is in that discussion anyway.
Down 8 points at the half the Wolverines rallied for 41 second half points to force overtime, and took the game in the extra session. This was a game Michigan easily could have lost and perhaps should have lost given their inability to hit crucial free throws. And there was a considerable amount of the line, literally and figuratively. Had they lost the NCAA Tournament discussion would have been over and done with. In the past, this was where the Michigan teams of old would've folded. The senior laden Tommy Amaker teams. The ones that were up 11 at the half, at home, and found a way to loserather than win. If you're looking a concrete example of how far Michigan has come in John Beilein's three and half years in Ann Arbor, look no further.
Even so, it's hard to take too much away from this game. As much as Iowa has improved over the course of the season, the Hawkeyes are still a team Michigan should beat if they are supposed to be a Tournament team. Iowa is currently 10-17, 3-12 Big Ten. Iowa has two wins over Indiana and an inexplicable 20 point beatdown of MSU to its credit; but after that it's nothing but pain. Iowa's fighting for pride right now, not a post season berth.
Michigan, in contrast, is fighting for everything. Fighting to show they're not a second choice program for a basketball rich state. Fighting to show last year's meltdown was due to those no longer present than those who are. Fighting to erase a six game losing streak. Fighting for their post season to mean something special. Fighting to make the Tournament. And it still took overtime to beat a 10-17 team. For all intents and purposes Michigan held serve on Saturday.
As we've said all along, this team seems to defy a lable or single story line. They find new and interesting ways of frustrating and amazing you all at once. In a game Michigan had to have, the Wolverines came out chucking threes that weren't going down. Michigan was 7-10 inside the arc in the first half, but 3-13 outside of it. However, unlike those Amaker "led" teams, Michigan adjusted in the second half. The Wolverines went 9-17 inside the arc and 3-6 outside of it. Taking advantage of Tim Hardaway Jr's hot hand and Jordan Morgan's presence down low, Michigan clawed its way back into the game despite the fact their two junior leaders (Zack Novak and Stu Douglass) were a combined 1-15!
While the overarching season is difficult to label, the last 8 games are not. Put simply it's been the Tim, Jordan, and Darius show. Hardaway exploded in the second half, tallying 22 points after halftime. Darius Morrisput up 20 points and 9 assists. Jordan Morgan led the team in rebounding with 8 boards and pumping in 18 points. Morris ranks 4th in the nation in assists per game. Hardaway has been named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week for the second straight week. Jordan Morgan is emerging as a legitimate Big Ten big man and is contributing on both ends of the floor. On Saturday they combined for 68 Michigan's 75 points.
Perhaps it's familiarity breeding confidence, as Ann Arbor dot Com suggests. The Wolverines are averaging four more points a game against conference foes in game two than game one. Maybe they're just growing up and learning how to deal with the target on their back, as I've suggested before. Maybe it's that the kids are finally getting it, as Dave Brandon's suggested. Who knows.
What it all comes down to is that with three underclassmen playing starring roles for Michigan, the Wolverines are a game under 500 with a legitimate shot of making the NCAA tournament in a year that no one thought that was possible. At the very least, they've inserted themselves into the preliminary conversation of worthy teams.
But without a marquee win over a ranked foe, Michigan is still on the outskirts of consideration. Whether they stay in the conversation will be determined in the next two weeks.