Chicago There's a gliding calm to these Wolverines, and when their shots are falling, it suits them well. But this isn't pretty time anymore, and it surely isn't quiet time.
To quote freshman Mitch McGary, and I'm paraphrasing here: "Aaaaarrrrrrrrggggghh!"
It's the noise Michigan needs to hear, the guttural sound of a large man grabbing a rebound or powering to the basket. It takes a while sometimes for the Wolverines to warm up, but if they plan to play deep into the postseason, this is what they have to do. Michigan has to do what big men McGary and Jon Horford did in the 83-66 victory over Penn State in the Big Ten tournament opener, playing as if challenged.
And it will have to do it even more today against Wisconsin. Few teams have as many shooters as Michigan (26-6), and no one has an orchestrator as gifted as Trey Burke. But the Wolverines seldom frighten opponents with their interior aggressiveness, and this is precisely the time to get riled up, to shoo the whispers of softness.
It's a bit of a redemption tour for the Wolverines, who were stunned by the Nittany Lions earlier, suffered an overtime crusher against the Badgers and lost twice to the Hoosiers. It actually began as a redundancy tour Thursday against Penn State, which jumped out to a 14-3 lead. And then McGary woke everything up with a stunning flurry of rebounds, chest thumps and wide-mouthed yells.
By halftime, he already had a double-double, and finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds (tying a career high). Horford took over for Jordan Morgan and added 11 points and five rebounds, showing how much it helps when the big guys get extra possessions for Michigan's shooters.
"When the bigs show up, it's tough to beat us," said McGary, who's 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds. "I like it when people say we're soft. I turn those degrading comments into motivation."
Sometimes it comes out loud enough to be heard across the United Center floor. Assistant LaVall Jordan has dubbed McGary the "Monster," and not just because he's bulky enough to menace. He's also animated enough to motivate.
"I like amping up the crowd, amping up our bench," McGary said. "Sometimes I get a little out of control, but everybody likes it. I think it bonded the team a bit, and I feel we got a little swagger back."
After the devastating way the Wolverines lost their finale to Indiana, they needed to get something back. They'll still likely go as far as Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. take them, but when a 6-6 Penn State forward named Travis Ross is tearing it up with rebound after rebound, it makes it tough.
On the frontline
You know who the leading rebounder for the Wolverines is? Freshman Glenn Robinson III with 5.5. McGary came in with a 5.3 average, Morgan was at 4.8 and Horford was at 2.2. John Beilein has been hunting for answers, and I wouldn't be surprised if McGary works his way into the starting lineup. Does this frontline have what it takes?
"Definitely, definitely," Horford said. "It's as easy as boxing out your man, not worrying about yourself getting the rebound. You don't have to get it, just don't let them get it."
Horford, a 6-10 sophomore, missed six games earlier with a dislocated kneecap but looked comfortable against Penn State. Beilein and assistant Bacari Alexander have stressed to the young guys to stop watching shots while opponents slip inside them.
It might be positioning more than disposition. At least, the Wolverines hope it is.
Burke is confident it is, because when he sees an animated, agitated McGary, he loves the possibilities.
"His way of talking to the team, his positive motivation, it's definitely the first step in being a future captain of this team," Burke said. "I think the big guys take it personal, in a good way, to prove people wrong."
If they needed any more motivation, it was delivered by the Hoosiers, who outrebounded the Wolverines, 53-30, and escaped with a 72-71 victory. After losing by a point despite such a deficit, the Wolverines recognize how good they can be if they hang onto the ball. Essentially, Michigan went a full game without committing a turnover — zero in the second half against Indiana, zero in the first half against Penn State.
That's what Michigan does. And to go forward now, it has to do something more. McGary was one of the nation's top recruits, and although his offensive game is raw, he's a prime candidate to do more.
"Mitch's game is still developing, as we all can see," Beilein said. "He's got the potential to do anything he wants, as long as Brady Hoke stays away from him."
Beilein was joking, although if Hoke wants a 6-10 tight end with a competitive flair and an engaging personality, he knows where to find him. When McGary gets going, you might even hear him before you see him.
Tip-off: 2:30 today, United Center, Chicago
Records: No. 22 Wisconsin 21-10, No. 6 Michigan 26-6
Did you know: Michigan got its first victory over Penn State in the Big Ten tournament, and seeks its first tournament win over Wisconsin. Michigan has won its opener the last seven seasons.
Outlook: The Badgers won the only meeting between the teams this season, 65-62 in overtime after a buzzer-beating 3-pointer in regulation and a grinding extra session. The winner gets the winner between No. 1 Indiana and No. 8 Illinois.
Michigan Statevs. Iowa
Tip-off: 9 tonight, United Center, Chicago
Records: No. 8 Michigan State 24-7, Iowa 21-11
Outlook: This is the third time Michigan State has been the No. 3 seed. It lost to Wisconsin in the semifinals in 2004 and lost to Minnesota in the quarterfinals in 2010. MSU won the only meeting with Iowa this season, 62-59, on Jan. 10 in Iowa City.
Big Tentournament Wednesday's first round
Illinois 51, Minnesota 49
Michigan 83, Penn State 66
Nebraska 57, Purdue 55
Iowa 73, Northwestern 59
Indianavs. Illinois, noon ESPN
Wisconsin vs.Michigan, 2:30 p.m. ESPN
Ohio State vs.Nebraska, 6:30 p.m. BTN
Michigan State vs.Iowa, 9 p.m. BTN