It has been a long road for the Michigan basketball program—26 long years to be exact. On Sunday, March 4, Michigan earned its first Big Ten title since 1986, with help from none other than arch-rival Ohio State. With a 71-65 victory over Penn State in State College, Michigan improved to 13-5 in the Big Ten. A few hours later, Ohio State knocked off Michigan State on a William Buford jumper with one second left to force Ohio State, Michigan State, and Michigan into a three-way tie for first place in the Big Ten. The three teams will officially split the title, with Michigan State claiming the number one seed in the Big Ten Tournament and Michigan and Ohio State followed respectively with the number two and number three seed.
Give credit to coach John Beilein for setting his team’s sights on the goal of a Big Ten championship from the start of the season. After experiencing the NCAA tournament last season, this year’s squad came out focused, not just on making the tournament, but on being one of the best teams in the Big Ten and competing for a conference championship.
“One of the main ways we measure success is Big Ten Championships… Being at Michigan over five years and watching the champions that have played at this university, I know how much it’s valued here with all the teams that have been so successful for so many years,” said Coach Beilein after the game on Sunday night.
Senior leaders Zach Novak and Stu Douglass have embraced Beilein’s message and their toughness has been displayed throughout the season. Their physical defensive presence and fiery passion led to Michigan to hold opponents to 60.6 points per game, good for fourth in the Big Ten. Their high basketball IQ resulted in only 10.6 turnovers per game for the Wolverines, also good for fourth in the Big Ten. Their willingness to take big shots and deliver when called upon contributed to Michigan’s 15-1 record at home that included wins against nationally ranked Big Ten programs such as Wisconsin, Ohio State, Indiana, and Michigan State. Stu Douglass’s role as a mentor was key to the development of freshman point guard Trey Burke, teaching him to learn the complex offensive system that Burke has blossomed in this year.
Speaking of Trey Burke, where would Michigan be without their sensational freshman point guard? He averaged 14.5 points per game and 4.8 assists but those numbers do not even capture his importance to this team. His two late baskets sealed Michigan’s victory over Ohio State on February 18, one of which came over former high school and player of the year candidate Jared Sullinger. His presence of mind to lead a fast break late in the game against Michigan State allowed Stu Douglass to lay in the go ahead basket that sent Crisler into a frenzy. His unreal start against Indiana brought Michigan out to an early lead that they would not look back upon. His athletic ability and pure basketball skill allowed Michigan to grind out road wins against lesser Big Ten foes, as Trey set up his teammates well in crunch which allowed Michigan to win closely contested matchups at Illinois, Northwestern, and Purdue.
Michigan’s postseason chances are largely dependent on the play of Burke, Novak and Douglass, but Tim Hardaway and Evan Smotrycz appear to be peaking at the right time. Against Penn State on March 4, Smotrycz had his best all around game of the season, scoring 17 points on 6-7 shooting. On March 1 against Illinois, Hardaway jumped out of his shooting slump, scoring 25 points on 6-7 shooting, going 4-4 from 3 point land. Everything seems to be clicking on all cylinders for the Wolverines as they enter the postseason with the title of Big Ten Champs.
This past weekend, Michigan fought off a rusty start against upset minded Minnesota to defeat the Golden Gophers in overtime by a score of 73-69. Trey Burke was masterful, scoring 30 points and carrying the Wolverines while his teammates were struggling. Evan Smotrycz hit a huge game tying three with 19 seconds left in regulation to send the matchup into overtime. The following afternoon, Michigan was out-matched by a hungrier and more talented Ohio State team, losing 77-55, as the game was never close. Burke and Hardaway both struggled shooting the ball and the team defense was a step slow playing on back-to-back days against a more athletic Ohio State squad.
Coach Beilein has successfully built the Michigan basketball program back into a Big Ten title contender. This Michigan team may not boast the talented recruiting class of Ohio State, the strong post presences of the Spartans, or the improbable discipline of Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin teams. However, they make up for it by spreading teams out on offense, shooting a high percentage via 3 pointers and smart shots, controlling the tempo to limit the number of offensive possessions of the opponent, and unselfish play on both ends of the floor. Coach Beilein has gotten everything out of every player on the team. With the confidence of being deemed Big Ten Champs, Michigan basketball has absolutely no limits. They have proven they can compete with the best, without the most talent on the floor. Beilein is a basketball genius and his players believe in his system and believe they can win against anybody. Basketball fans, embrace success—Michigan basketball is back.