Ann Arbor – The symbols were all there, from the past and present, the perfect setting for another improbable step. The Wolverines will hang another Big Ten championship banner and perhaps even more, their reward for turning into ruthless late-game closers.
This time, it was desperate Minnesota, pushing hard and keeping it close, right up until Michigan did what it does better and better. The Wolverines pulled away for a 66-56 victory Saturday night that clinched at least a share of the conference title, with two games remaining.
It was a festive night at the Crisler Center with most of the 1989 team in attendance. That was the group that completed one of college basketball’s most-improbable journeys to win the national championship. The current Wolverines have faced their own long odds, although don’t bother suggesting they’ve completed their journey.
John Beilein didn’t want to know Michigan State had just lost to Illinois, making a clinch possible, although someone ruined it by telling him right before the game. The players learned at halftime, not that it really mattered.
While Michigan State was melting down in a stunning home loss, Michigan was holding it together to climb to 13-3 in the Big Ten, 21-7 overall. Michigan State and Wisconsin both have five conference losses, so a tie is still possible. The Wolverines play at Illinois, then close the regular season at home against Indiana Saturday night, and they’re not interested in sharing anything.
“It means a lot, especially because people said we weren’t capable of doing this, weren’t capable of winning a Big Ten championship once Mitch (McGary) went down, and Trey (Burke) and Tim (Hardaway Jr.) left,” Glenn Robinson III said. “I’m just proud of my guys and happy for us, and yet again, we aren’t done.”
Fittingly, it came down to another series of clutch plays in a tight game, and a different batch of players pulled it off. Center Jordan Morgan seemed to grab every key rebound, and his layup off an amazing rebound-pass by Spike Albrecht gave Michigan a 56-52 lead with 3:40 left.
There are no limits when these Wolverines do more than shoot well, and focus on the intangibles. Somehow, despite sharing the Big Ten title two years ago and reaching the NCAA championship game last season, it’s still one of the youngest teams in the country. Sophomores Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert and Robinson III scored most of the points, but it was the “veteran” sophomore Albrecht making smart, decisive plays late.
This isn’t the most-unlikely Big Ten championship ever, with Michigan generally pegged in the preseason to finish third, behind Michigan State and Ohio State. But it turned into something much more daunting, then turned back again. Ten weeks ago, Michigan was 6-4 and trying to figure things out with McGary lost to back surgery, and Burke and Hardaway Jr. in the NBA.
Beilein and his staff have done a spectacular job in an ongoing adjustment, seemingly with a different star each game. Michigan hasn’t won an outright Big Ten championship since 1986, and if it completes this one, Beilein easily should be the conference’s Coach of the Year. Again, just don’t tell him he’s accomplished anything yet.
“We’ve been really good at handling pressure and all that comes with playing at this level,” Beilein said. “Now everybody’s patting you on the back, and that can be your enemy. We cannot let that happen. We have to handle this really well, because we want that outright championship.”
'They make you pay'
Before the game, players from the ’89 team gathered and reminisced, and afterward they celebrated in the locker room and joined in the “Victors,” led by the senior Morgan. I asked Glen Rice, the shooting star of the ’89 team, what he liked best about this group, and he laughed.
“You’re asking a shooter that?” he said. “These guys can shoot the ball, flat out. If they’re on, they’re probably one of the best shooting teams in the NCAA. I see them grow every game. And on any night, anybody can be the standout.”
Despite a sloppy start Saturday night, Michigan finished at 50 percent from the field, and Stauskas hit five of eight 3-pointers. As Robinson III gets more aggressive and LeVert continues to develop and someone like Albrecht or Zak Irvin pops off the bench, Michigan’s offense can become a different kind of beast.
Just ask Gophers coach Richard Pitino, whose team is on the NCAA bubble and scrapped hard, but couldn’t stop the Wolverines when it mattered. In the final four minutes, Michigan pulled away from a 54-52 game, capped by Albrecht’s 3-pointer with 1:13 left -- the Spike in the coffin -- that sent the crowd into celebration.
“They’re such a good offensive team, and they make you pay,” Pitino said. “If you go under a screen, Stauskas will hit a shot. I gotta give them credit, they’re a really good team, one of the best in the country. They’re young, they’re talented. I told every guy in that (handshake) line, ‘Go pro, get out of there.’”
Actually, that’s what happened after last season, and the Wolverines recovered. And now here they are, back for more, wanting more, looking capable of taking more.