Beilein: Playing at MSG worth the NCAA wait for Michigan

James X Hawkins

The waiting game is underway.

After reeling off four wins in four days last week to take home its second straight Big Ten tournament title, Michigan is in the midst of at least a 10-day idle stretch before the NCAA Tournament begins.

However, Michigan coach John Beilein and many of the players don’t view the unusual break as an advantage or disadvantage. Rather, it’s an adjustment and price to pay for the memorable opportunity to play at Madison Square Garden.

“In a perfect world that would be great,” Beilein said following Sunday’s tournament final of playing right away, instead of having a long layoff. “But to play in this arena in front of that crowd, which I feel was very pro-Michigan, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us. So, it will be worth the wait.”

Beilein has been in a similar situation during his previous stops at Canisius and Richmond. After his teams won their respective conference tournaments in 1996 and 1998, Beilein said his players welcomed the extended layoff to recover and regroup, and Richmond even went on to pull off a stunning upset of South Carolina in the first round.

Beilein also was quick to mention that several successful NCAA Tournament teams over the years have had to endure the same wait, like Gonzaga, Butler (Horizon League) and Wichita State (Missouri Valley Conference).

This season, the Big Ten had to hold its tournament a week earlier than its traditional March window — and crown its champion on the same day as the Atlantic Sun, Big South and Missouri Valley conferences — because the Big East has the premiere weekend locked up at the Garden until 2026.

“I guess we’ll see what it does,” sophomore guard Zavier Simpson said of the break. “We’ll take advantage of it, do the right things. It’s a long season and we have to be smart, but we also have to keep working hard. If we do those two things I feel like we’ll be fine.

“It’s going to be kind of weird, but we just got to embrace it and do the smart things in between that time to get better.”

While it remains to be seen whether the time off will cool the red-hot Wolverines and derail the momentum they’ve built during their nine-game win streak, it could be beneficial and coming at the right time.

It could help freshman guard Jordan Poole get back on track after a rough week in New York, where he shot 5-for-19 from the field and 0-for-9 from 3-point range, and freshman forward Isaiah Livers return to health after aggravating his left ankle injury early in the second half against Purdue in the championship game.

It’ll also provide a much-needed breather for fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson (109), redshirt sophomore wing Charles Matthews (128), senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (129) and Simpson (140), who all logged more than 100 minutes in the four-day span.

“I think it will help to have a little bit of rest and be well-rested, but we just can’t rest too much,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “We’ll eventually get back to work and hopefully continue to play the way we’re playing.”

It’s a drastic difference from last season when Michigan won the conference tournament in Washington, D.C. and barely had any time to celebrate its hard-fought title before the team immediately turned its attention to Selection Sunday.

While the Wolverines certainly won’t be sweating out this week, it’ll give them a chance to soak in their recent success a little bit more before getting back to the lab and making improvements for the Big Dance next week.

“Knowing Coach B, once we find out who we’re playing or where we’re seeded, we’ll focus all our time and attention on that and prep for that game,” Robinson said. “But until then, we’re in this unique situation where we get to focus on each other, and grow and learn.”