The Detroit News' Bob Wojnowski and James Hawkins talk about Michigan's play heading into the postseason and preview this week's Big Ten tournament in New York. The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — Stop if you’ve heard this before, but Michigan coach John Beilein has his team hitting its stride at just the right time.
It has seemingly become an annual trend under Beilein when the postseason rolls around. While some teams may level off or become complacent, he manages to find a way to continually extract and squeeze the best out of the Wolverines.
This season is no different, as Michigan appears poised to make another March run, starting today when it begins its title defense in the Big Ten tournament at Madison Square Garden.
But there’s no switch that’s suddenly flipped. Instead, it’s a product of a steady build over months and a nonstop pursuit to push the team to its peak.
“Just the constant effort to help us grow and teach us and help us learn. He never stops,” fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson said of Beilein on Tuesday. “I’m not to say what other coaches do, but that’s literally our emphasis every single day whether we win or lose, if we’re in a film session, on the court, in the weight room. That’s all he wants us to do and just focus on improving every single day. By now, you see the accumulation effect of it all.
“Maybe day to day you don’t really see it, but if you step back, remove yourself and look at the big picture, I think you get what we have here, which is a team that feels good about where they’re at and playing, hopefully, their best basketball of the season in this next stretch.”
Michigan enters the conference tournament in New York as one of the hottest teams, winning seven of eight and five straight heading into Thursday’s second-round matchup against No. 12 Iowa.
While the Wolverines may not have the same sense of desperation they’ve had the past couple seasons to secure an NCAA bid, junior center Moritz Wagner said it’s still not hard to stay motivated knowing what’s at stake and the heightened level of urgency the other conference teams will be playing with.
“It’s money time,” Wagner said. “It doesn’t matter what type of streak you have. You see it at Purdue, you can win 19 in a row and then lose one and the season goes exactly the opposite, especially now.
“I think what we’ve done an incredible job as a team and as a coaching staff led by Coach Beilein is regardless of if we win or not, every game we’re trying to grow from. We watch film on every game, look at the bads and see what we can improve because we look at the long term and not only the next game.”
Wagner added Beilein approaches every matchup the same way, no matter if the offense was horrible and sputtered all game long like it did in the 61-52 loss at Northwestern, or was firing on all cylinders and as efficient as it could possibly be, like in the 92-88 loss at Purdue.
Even in last weekend’s regular-season finale when Michigan hammered Maryland, 85-61, and seemingly could do no wrong, Beilein found faults that his team didn’t have the same defensive intensity at times and played like they were up 30 in the second half.
“He finds improvements in losses and wins and that’s incredible,” Wagner said. “That’s what he does.”
Even this late in the season the learning process doesn’t take a break, no matter if you’re a freshman or fifth-year senior.
With Beilein, there’s always a constant yearning to refine skill development, to correct mistakes and to better understand how opponents are trying to stop Michigan’s offense, like Northwestern’s matchup zone or when Nebraska stifled the Wolverines by switching everything ball screen.
“I’m still learning the right plays to make,” freshman guard Jordan Poole said. “There’s always so much that you can learn and Coach (Beilein) is a big guy like that. That’s why I feel like we’re peaking right now.”
It’s a familiar belief that toward the end of another season-long teaching quest, the best — both for and from Michigan — is yet to come.
“It’s very natural that teams are just going into this tournament and they think they’re a lock (for the NCAA Tournament). They go into this tournament and they don’t play at the level they need to,” Beilein said. “The last couple years we certainly weren’t a lock. We came in there and played so well. We’re just trying to get instilled we play the same way no matter the situation is.
“We can win this championship. Four games in four days — they’ve seen this right in front of them. We can do it.”
Freshman forward Isaiah Livers has recorded just five points and three rebounds over the past four games since returning from a left ankle injury he suffered at Northwestern on Feb. 6.
During the span, Livers shot 1-for-6 from the field, with his lone make being a 3-pointer against Iowa. He was held scoreless against Ohio State and Maryland, and his only points at Penn State came from two free throws late in the game.
Beilein said the injury threw Livers “through a bit of a loop” and noted the coaching staff has been working with him to increase the volume of shots he’s taking at practice.
“We’ve been trying to work him out the best we can. His game is growing, but he’s finding out his game has got to go grow offensively and defensively to really help us,” Beilein said. “He could be an outlier in this (tournament) because we need him defensively. Certainly, he’s a better matchup for a lot of the four men we see.”
However, Livers’ playing time has also dipped during Robinson’s recent surge.
Robinson is shooting 52.8 percent from the field (55.6 percent on 3-pointers) and averaging 12.8 points in 29.6 minutes over the past five games, which includes one spot start in Livers’ place.
Meanwhile, Livers has averaged just 14.3 minutes since returning to the lineup.
“I would love to see (Livers) go have a really good scoring and defensive game,” Beilein said. “He’s had some good defensive games. He hasn’t scored the ball and he hasn’t had a lot of opportunities either because Duncan has been so good.”
BIG TEN TOURNAMENT
Michigan vs. Iowa
Tip-off: 2:30 p.m. Thursday, Madison Square Garden, New York
Records: Michigan 24-7, 13-5 Big Ten; Iowa 13-18, 4-14
Outlook: Michigan will look to become the first No. 5 seed to win the conference tournament and join Michigan State (1999-2000) and Ohio State (2010-11) as the only teams to repeat as champions.