In May 2019, the world woke up to a seismic shift in the college basketball landscape. John Beilein left Michigan to become the Cleveland Cavaliers’ head coach, closing the book on a 12-year stretch that saw the Wolverines appear in two national title games.
On Thursday night, nearly twenty-two months later, Michigan dribbled out the clock on the block ‘M’ at center court in Ann Arbor. The moment came just a few minutes after senior forward Isaiah Livers kissed the court on his way off the court. Maize confetti rained down from the Crisler Center ceiling, and the Wolverines’ bench rushed the floor to celebrate their 2020-21 outright Big Ten regular-season title.
“That’s a high accomplishment for me, especially,” Livers said. “I got a Big Ten Tournament, I got to the Final Four, I knew in the back of my mind, I wanted to get outright. I wanted to do it. And why not with this team? We’re special, guys work hard, guys want in, guys play for one another. The ball can roll for anybody. We all play like brothers, we all love each other.”
The almost two years between those moments feel like a whirlwind. Less than two weeks after Beilein’s abrupt departure, Michigan hired Juwan Howard despite his zero head coaching experience. In a pandemic-shortened first season at the helm, Howard guided the Wolverines to a top-five national ranking before finishing in the bottom half of the Big Ten standings and losing three transfers.
Most pegged Michigan as a mid-tier Big Ten team entering this season. The Wolverines have been anything but that. Following Thursday’s 69-50 blowout win over rival Michigan State, Michigan is now 19-2 overall and 14-2 in conference play. The Wolverines are ranked No. 7 nationally in offensive efficiency and No. 3 in defensive efficiency, per KenPom.
With the NCAA Tournament on the horizon, they’ve firmly established themselves as national contenders.
“There were times I think we were unranked, and I never took it as a slight,” Howard said. “I just said, ‘Hey, we have to prove ourselves,’ and I knew we were going to have to prove ourselves back in June. The guys would tell you, from June I started talking about this, this is championship habits. We’re going to develop championship habits, how we practice, how we prepare ourselves, how we compete. There are going to be some special things (that) happen, but we have to go in and work hard at it. It’s not going to be given to us. Our guys earned it. They earned this Big Ten championship by the belief they had for each other.”
That belief was apparent during the second half against the Spartans. Michigan’s suffocating defense held Michigan State to fewer than 50 points for the first time since February 1996, and the Spartans finished the night without making a 3-pointer. The Wolverines held Michigan State scoreless for a 7:37 stretch in the second half as they went on a 25-4 run, putting an exclamation point on Michigan’s regular-season crown.
“It’s gratifying to go out here during what we all have dealt with during this pandemic, very challenging times, but we didn’t make excuses,” Howard said. “We rolled up our sleeves and figured out along the way. A lot of different things thrown our way, we didn’t make excuses for it. We continued to keep grinding and grinding. Some would say, and I agree, this is the toughest conference in college basketball, night in and night out. We’re always going to get every team’s best just like they’re going to get our best.”
When the final buzzer sounded, the team’s Senior Night ceremony began. Livers, Austin Davis and Eli Brooks looked up into the Crisler Center nosebleeds, where they saw Beilein staring back at them. Though tonight wasn’t what they envisioned two years ago, all it took was eye contact and a wave to bring everything full circle.
On the confetti-glazed court, Howard was the one embracing the seniors with a bear hug after they cut down the nets. And as the regular season nears its end, it may not be the last time they find themselves trimming nylon atop a ladder.
“I want the natty, too,” Livers said. “I got my outright, we’re going to go win the Big Ten championship, have a March madness run, fingers crossed, and go get that natty.”