Wojo: UM, MSU springing to life at ideal time
A few weeks ago, March looked dead around here. Brackets and bubbles? The Spartans and Wolverines were mostly blowing bubbles, searching for identities, hunting for inspiration.
They found it because they kept looking, even when things looked bleak. Now, no one is declaring Michigan or Michigan State Final Four contenders, or even guaranteed NCAA Tournament participants. But barring a late collapse, both will get in, and if they do, those bids will be as cherished as any in recent years.
They’re peaking at the right time, as long as they don’t peek prematurely at potential brackets. College basketball is crazy because players arrive and depart quickly, so we shouldn’t be amazed when something morphs seemingly out of nothing. But the past month has been revelatory, and the past weekend was all about tears and extra gears.
Tom Izzo’s red eyes revealed plenty after Michigan State beat Wisconsin to reach 10-6 in the Big Ten, only two games out of first, barely a week after senior Eron Harris’ season-ending knee injury. John Beilein’s voice shook with pride as he talked about his seniors, led by rocketing point guard Derrick Walton Jr., after Michigan’s victory over Purdue. And please, let’s not ignore the superb job by Greg Kampe at Oakland, which won the Horizon League championship and rides into the conference tournament at Joe Louis Arena on a nine-game winning streak.
What happened here? From a possible blanked-out March, all three teams are playing their best basketball. Oakland is 24-7 but will have to win its conference tournament to land an NCAA bid, and that might require beating nemesis Valparaiso a third time.
Michigan State (18-11), which has won four of five, plays twice on the road this week (Illinois, Maryland), and has just about sealed its 20th consecutive Tournament appearance. Michigan (19-10), which has won five of six, also plays two road games (Northwestern, Nebraska), and one victory almost assuredly clinches a bid. If the Wolverines lose both, and drop the first game in the Big Ten tournament, they might sweat a bit.
Tough roads traveled
With any sort of run in the conference tournament, Michigan and Michigan State could climb from potential eighth or ninth seeds in the NCAA Tournament to sixth or seventh. With similar RPIs (Spartans are 40th, Wolverines 46th), they’re vying for similar slots.
Nothing comes easily now, but nothing has come easily all year. In fact, this has been the strangest season in recent memory, with veteran coaches pushing harder than ever, and winning with unusual personnel mixes.
Izzo usually has a batch of seasoned upperclassmen, but MSU is led by four freshmen, including the spectacular Miles Bridges. Beilein usually has a batch of raw players who rise (and leave) suddenly, but finally has the luxury of a driven senior in Walton.
As clutch and dominating as Walton and Bridges have been at times, the Ws started piling up when the other Ws emerged — Ward and Wagner. Freshman Nick Ward was benched after Michigan State’s 29-point loss to Michigan three weeks ago. Since then, he’s averaging 15.4 points, shooting 61.7 percent and becoming a menacing inside presence.
The other two freshmen — Joshua Langford and Cassius Winston — are getting more comfortable, especially Winston, whose on-court savvy is beyond his years.
“I haven’t been able to say it, but we have a shell of our team,” Izzo said. “You know it, I know it. It’s been hell on those freshmen. It’s been hard on us. But we’ve handled it, we’ve survived it.”
Ward is the wild card, and his growing impact is similar to another uniquely skilled young guy. Moe Wagner is Michigan’s 6-foot-11 sophomore energizer, a multi-dimensional player with 3-point range and an improving defensive game. Just as the Spartans had to bottom out to rise up, the Wolverines’ climb began shortly after an Illinois player branded them “white collar,” and then Ohio State beat them in the Crisler Center.
At that point, the Wolverines were 4-6 in the Big Ten and feeble on defense. Now they’re 9-7, and while Walton runs an offense that can be tremendously efficient, he’s getting help. Wagner scored 22 in the first half against Purdue and is averaging 16.3 points the past six games.
But listen to him talk, and you better grasp the Wolverines’ development.
“I don’t really care about the offense,” Wagner said. “That was what made me actually proud, that regardless of whether we scored or not, we locked in defensively. That was my focus after every basket.”
In different ways, the Wolverines and Spartans are rising simultaneously, although caution here -- they haven’t landed anywhere yet. Beilein’s offense is humming with an experienced leader, and even the slightest progress on defense makes a difference. Izzo’s defense is cranking up with youngsters, and even the slightest improvement on offense — cutting down on turnovers — makes a difference.
Each team has aura
So what really is unfolding in our area? It’s still hard to envision significant tourney runs, but at least you can see fuzzy shapes gradually sharpening.
Oakland has a terrific senior leader in Sherron Dorsey-Walker and is showing emotion and toughness. Playing the conference tournament in Detroit should help, as the Golden Grizzlies try to land their first NCAA bid since 2011.
Michigan has a nice array of perimeter shooters, including Duncan Robinson and 6-10 D.J. Wilson. When the Wolverines get hot, they get scorching, and the Walton-Wagner combo is capable of vexing opponents.
For Michigan State, Bridges is the type of talent most opponents don’t see. Along with Ward and Winston and perhaps a rejuvenated Matt McQuaid, the Spartans will present problems for someone, which would’ve been preposterous to suggest a month ago.
Plenty has changed since then, but nothing has been settled. March is here, and against the odds, there’s something worth watching after all.