Bob Wojnowski and James Hawkins on the Michigan win over Louisville. Robin Buckson, The Detroit News
Indianapolis — It doesn’t matter who, it doesn’t matter how. The Wolverines are getting it done any way possible, looking like a team with no intention of slowing its roll.
This was riveting and revealing, and not just because Michigan ran past tall, swift Louisville, 73-69, on Sunday. It isn’t just because the Wolverines kept their composure, wiped out a nine-point second-half deficit and won in a manner not many expected.
How dangerous have the Wolverines become, headed to a Sweet 16 battle in Kansas City on Thursday night against Oregon? Dangerous enough they can win when star Derrick Walton Jr. is smothered and misses 10 of 13 shots. Dangerous enough a legendary coach like Rick Pitino had no answer after Michigan solved his ball-hawking defense and unleashed Moritz Wagner, who scored a career-high 26.
This is Michigan in full form now, winning two stirring games here in completely different fashion, with one constant. They’re playing with the type of joyful fearlessness that marks a March run. On the whiteboard in their cramped locker room, they scrawled the phrase of the times and the Tournament — Why Not Us?
It’s an increasingly relevant question. Michigan has won seven in a row and 12 of 14, and just knocked out the second-seeded nemesis. No. 7 seed Michigan was a fashionable sleeper pick because of what it went through with the plane mishap and how it’s improved, but now everyone is fully woke to the Wolverines’ chances.
“It’s not gravy now,” John Beilein said. “We’re gonna do everything we can to win this whole thing. I’m no spring chicken. You get to the Sweet 16, you’re only four games away from winning the whole thing. We have to have that belief in ourselves that we can play with a lot of people.”
If there was any lingering doubt, this should quell it. The game ended as every Michigan game has ended the past two weeks — with a celebratory bottle-spraying war in the locker room. Only this time, the competition was raised when Beilein, thanks to a clandestine purchase at the mall by his wife Kathleen, was armed with a Super Soaker squirt gun, and slid out of the coaches’ room to blast away at his players.
The video is hilarious and joyous, not because something momentous was accomplished, but because something momentous still is possible.
“I went into this game with a lot of confidence I was going to be using the Super Soaker at the end,” Beilein said. “At the end of first half, I wasn’t so sure anyone would even know I had it. But we withstood everything they had.”
‘A little more experienced’
By the very nature of March Madness, two elements are a must: Poise under pressure; versatility to adjust to varied opponents. The Wolverines (26-11) showed both after falling behind, 36-28, at halftime. It was a crushing finish to the half when the Cardinals scored eight straight and Wagner picked up his second foul on a highly questionable call.
The animated Wagner has been known to let his emotions run rampant but he contained himself, and then he unloaded. Remember two days ago, when Michigan edged Oklahoma State by hitting 16 3-pointers, six by Walton?
Louisville adjusted and put 7-footer Anas Mahmoud on the 6-1 Walton. So Michigan adjusted, didn’t force 3-pointers — they made only six — and let their own big guys, Wagner and D.J. Wilson, wheel to the basket again and again. The Wolverines shot a staggering 63 percent in the second half.
“We wanted to hold the 3 down — we did it,” Pitino said. “We wanted to attack inside — we did it. They were just a better team down the stretch, a little more experienced.”
The Wolverines finally took a 58-55 lead on a 3-pointer by Wagner, who exulted by tilting his head back and wagging his tongue as he sprinted back downcourt. That’s the element of Michigan’s game that has evolved — once the big guys found their confidence and roles, this became much more than a 3-point-shooting team, and much more than a Walton showcase.
Wagner, who scored only six points in limited minutes against Oklahoma State, hit 11 of 14 shots against Louisville. Asked what it felt like to be “the man,” he shook his head and smiled.
“That’s the beautiful thing with this team, there is no ‘man,’” Wagner said. “Every day it can be somebody else. … People always say we’re just a shooting team, and we know we can shoot. But we also know that’s not the only thing we can do, and I’m happy we can show that. But to be honest, I don’t really care how people see us, as long as we’re winning.”
‘We’re not soft’
It used to bug the Wolverines, especially when they were labeled soft after a couple desultory Big Ten losses to Illinois and Ohio State. The story of an Illinois player calling Michigan a “white-collar” team is old, but it sparked a drive, even an anger, that still churns.
“We did have some games where we were missing an edge,” Beilein said. “But what we learned was, we’re not soft. They have the capacity to play much better with more intensity, and that’s what you’re seeing right now.”
They’ve been saying it, but now you’re seeing it against terrific competition. All five starters are capable of scoring, either on 3’s or drives, and that automatically makes the Wolverines difficult to defend. And while they’ll never be demons on the boards, they make up for those lost possessions by rarely giving away others.
Against Louisville’s maddening defense, Michigan committed only four turnovers. The Wolverines had six against Oklahoma State, an astonishingly low 10 total for such pressurized games.
Beilein called the halftime break a defining moment for his team because Michigan couldn’t get open shots. But Walton found other ways and other guys.
“Moe’s been a problem all year for people, he’s a matchup nightmare,” Walton said. “I knew their game plan was to make sure I didn’t beat them, and they did a great job. But I’m one of those guys that doesn’t care how it looks, I just want to win. The word ‘fear’ doesn’t really come up in here. We feel we can play and beat anybody in the country.”
They surely can scrap with anybody to the sweaty end. The Wolverines clinched both games here with clutch plays in the closing minutes. Against the Cardinals, it was Walton’s bulling drive for a layup to put Michigan up 69-65 with 29.4 seconds left. And then, as he did in the first game, Wilson sealed it with clutch free throws, four in a row in the final 17 seconds.
There are a lot of ways to win basketball games, and right now, Michigan has a lot of players able to contribute in a lot of ways. It’s not necessarily a unique formula but it’s unique to these Wolverines, bonded in unusual ways, growing tougher and tighter with every step.
Michigan vs. Oregon
What: Michigan vs. Oregon in a semifinal of the Midwest Region.
When: 7:09 p.m. Thursday
TV/radio: CBS/WWJ 950
Seedings/records: No. 7 Michigan 26-11, No. 3 Oregon 31-5
At stake: Spot in Midwest Region final against Kansas-Purdue winner.