Game 30: Michigan Wolverines 70 - Minnesota Golden Gophers 63
Michigan 18-12 (8-9), 6th in Big Ten Conference
Remaining Regular Season Games: 3/5 Michigan St. Spartans
It wasn't so long ago that Michigan was sitting at an improbable 10-2 and starting, just as improbably, at a legitimate shot at a NCAA Tournament bid. Then the reality of a team starting three freshmen hit and Michigan tumbled into a 6 game slide that, at the time, seemed to erase their post-season hopes. Fast forward two months and Michigan now sits at 18-12 (trailing only #1 Ohio State, #6 Purdue, and #10 Wisconsin in overall wins), has won 7 of 10 games, and are (just as improbably) staring down a potential NCAA invite. Standing in their way are the Michigan State Spartans, a team that is just as improbably fighting for its tournament life as well. But that's a discussion for another day. Today, we'll bask in the win.
One of the things from Saturday that stuck with me was commentator Jim Jackson's assessment that the Wolverines seemed to finally understand what it took to win a crucial game. To understand the commitment and to understand just how hard it is to win a game at this level of play. While these sorts of statements are thrown around by commenators ad nausem, with respect to Michigan, I think it rings true. Michigan should have taken down the Badgers a week ago and secured a dance ticket. Instead, they got nut punched. Michigan struggled to put away Northwestern, Iowa, and Indiana, despite holding huge leads in each game. Each time Michigan seemed to be in a position to win the game comfortably, yet made the final outcome uncomfortably close.
Saturday was similar and different at the same time. It was similar in the sense that Michigan was up 12 points with 6 minutes to go in the first half, yet failed to register another point until the second half. A game that Michigan had under control was suddenly out of control. Standard operating procedure, Men's Basketball, 2010-2011.
The game was different in the sense that at no point in the second half did either team take its foot off the gas. This was not a game of runs in the second half. It was a game of punch and counterpunch. Until the last minute of play the largest second half lead was 4 points. Every rebound was crucial, every possession precious. It was a playoff game that both teams wanted to win, rather than a game both teams were trying to save.
If you were to look a the game on paper Michigan proabably shouldn't have won. Minnesota towers over the Wolverines, dominating the frontcourt by as many as seven inches. Ralph Sampson III routinely took advantage of the his size advantage, either draining 8 foot jumpers or causing havoc around the rim. Then there was Trevor Mbakwe delivering a crotchload of dunk to poor Zack Novak's face and generally being taller and more athletic than Michigan's frontcourt. The result was Michigan's front court being outscored 12-26. Improbably, it didn't matter.
Jackson's comments rang true. Sometimes the quicker, stronger little guy doesn't care how big you are. Because if he's hungrier, he's going to steal your lunch. The little guy learns how to survive, how to win. Part one was Novak's steal. Part two was Darius Morris burying the lay-in on the outlet, and just as importantly draining the critical and-one.
If there's been a bugaboo that's emerged over the last few weeks it's been free throw shooting. It cost Michigan the Wisconsin game and nearly cost them three others. Of all the players who've found themselves on the stripe with time running down, Morris was easily the player with the most on his mind. Had he made even one of his free throws with 32 seconds left, Michigan (at a minimum) forces overtime on Josh Gasser's last second trey. But part of winning is learning how hard it is, and rising to the challenge. As his critical free throw rattled home, Morris clinched his fist in the air signifying that the deed was done and any hangover from the Wisconsin game was purged. 49 seconds later, Michigan emerged a winner.
I've never seen a Michigan team like this, in any sense. Perhaps the closest approximation is the 1998 Men's Ice Hockey National Championship team. They were young, they were talented, but god were they young. They shouldn't have been there. They should've been in the NCAA Tournament, but I don't think anyone expected them to walk away with the ultimate prize. Even so, that team was backstopped by arguably the best college hockey goaltender of all time in Marty Turco and had enough senior leadership to steer the ship through rough waters.
This edition of the men's basketball team possesses none of that. It is a ship whose course is set without a single senior on the roster. And here the ultimate prize is simply being included in the tournament. For the most part, the players are relatively unheralded in comparision to some of their in-state competitors and the national players of note. Yet here they are.
This team is something extremely special. I'm not talking about their future, I'm talking about their present. They've been written off before the season began, and written off before it was half over. Yet time and time again they've shown us a resiliency and determination that not only makes us cheer, but makes us care.
Win or lose, this team has made Michigan basketball relevant. They've transformed the months in between December and March into basketball season, not just time filler before spring practice. They've made Michigan a basketball school, a school that is legitimately invested in their basketball program not just as a distraction but as a part of its identity.
So, with nervous anticipation, all of Michigan awaits Saturday's showdown with Michigan State. For the first time in years the two programs step onto the court for (basically) all the marbles. Everyone in the state will be glued to their tubes and seats. And all of this because an improbable group of young men defied the odds, the projections, and the height and skill of their opponents. They took their lumps, the beleived, and they grew as a team. And now it seems they've learned how to win.
Come Selection Sunday, every Wolverine fan will wait and watch. Fingers crossed and breath held, waiting to find out if Michigan, their Michigan, will be in the NCAA Tournament. And after decades of sanctions, disappointment, and Tommy Amaker, how improbable is that?