Key moments in Michigan's rise to brink of Big Ten championship

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Players celebrate with Charles Matthews after he hits the winning shot against Minnesota on Jan. 22.

When Michigan rolled through the first two months of the season, there was never any talk about going undefeated.

Even when the Wolverines were one of the last unbeaten teams left standing in the nation, the mere thought of a perfect season never crossed coach John Beilein’s mind.

That’s because that was never the goal for Michigan. Rather, the focus was — and still is — on three things: winning the Big Ten regular-season title, winning a third straight Big Ten tournament title and winning the NCAA Tournament title.

Thanks to an assist from Minnesota on Tuesday, Michigan is tied atop the conference standings with Michigan State and Purdue and has a chance to check the first goal off the list — an option that seemed unlikely a week ago.

“The odds would be against you, but we've had that before,” Beilein said of his team’s regular-season title chances last week. “Who would've said last year we had two games to go we're going to go to win at Penn State and go to Maryland and win to finish out? And then we're going to go to New York City (for the conference tournament) and we're going to end up winning that damn thing. Who knows? Absolutely we believe we can still win this thing.

“We're competing for a Big Ten championship. That's a big goal for us. Not the only goal, but that's a huge goal if you're still competing for a Big Ten championship and it's almost damn March.”

Fast forward a week and Michigan has a shot to secure at least a share of its first regular-season crown since 2014 — and third during Beilein’s tenure — and the top seed in next week’s conference tournament.

And to get here, the Wolverines certainly needed some late-season help, but they also put themselves in position to be in this position. Here’s a look at five key moments during Michigan’s Big Ten season:

Early statement

Michigan was projected to be one of the Big Ten’s top teams in the preseason poll and certainly played the part in the conference opener when it steamrolled then-No. 19 Purdue by 19 points on Dec. 1 at home.

The Wolverines held Big Ten preseason player of the year Carsen Edwards to 19 points on 21 shots and the Boilermakers to 57 points on 35.5 percent shooting — two marks that still rank among Purdue’s lowest through 30 games.  

"They're learning that sometimes you're not going to make a foul shot, you're going to turn it over, you're going to have a tough ref's call, but your defense can be the one constant,” Beilein said at the time. “As long as we keep embracing that we can keep having success.”

The convincing victory came during Michigan’s red-hot start when it destroyed its first eight opponents by at least 17 points and put the rest of the nation on watch. But little did the Wolverines know the beating would end up going a long way in the 20-game conference marathon and give them the upper hand with a key tiebreaker.

Michigan guard Zavier Simpson  looks to the basket as Northwestern forward Miller Kopp guards during the first half on Dec. 4.

Dodged bullet

It seemed fitting that Michigan’s first real taste of adversity and first close call of the season, 62-60, came on Dec. 4 at Northwestern — the same place that resulted in crushing heartbreak the last two trips.

The Wolverines were given a reality check of how unreliable the backup center spot was behind junior Jon Teske and how much of an offensive liability junior guard Zavier Simpson could be when his shots weren’t falling. The Wildcats cut a 13-point deficit down to two during a three-minute stretch with Teske on the bench and dared Simpson to shoot from deep in the second half, which he did in 0-for-5 fashion and led to him being benched for much of the final six minutes.

On top of that, Michigan had to deal with its first opponent that was able to shoot better than 40 percent against its defense and find a way to dig deep in a grind-it-out battle that went down to the final possession.

Despite all those bumps on the road, Michigan was able to do just enough and survive Northwestern’s 3-point attempt at the buzzer in a game that was chock-full of valuable experiences and lessons.

Last-second survival

After Michigan saw its program-best 17-0 start come to an end on Jan. 19 at Wisconsin and suffered its first regular-season loss in 11 months, the Wolverines nearly dropped their second in a span of four days when Minnesota erased a 10-point lead in the final five minutes.

With the game tied at 57 and 31 seconds to go, Michigan dialed up a play for freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis that saw him drive to the rim and have his shot attempt turned away by a host of Gophers. The ball was tipped out to redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews, who was in the right place at the right time, and he drained a baseline floater that just beat the shot clock.

It was a clutch bucket that not only helped Michigan avoid back-to-back losses and protect home court, which is paramount for any team hoping to vie for a conference title, but one that helped the Wolverines pull out a win despite one of its worst offensive performances of the season (21-for-62 shooting, 3-for-22 on 3s).

"I'm not a huge fan of the slogan 'ugly wins,'" Matthews said after the game. "I just feel like you're going against good teams and you can't blow everybody out. I feel like if you can survive these ones, these are quality wins. You've got to be able to gut them out."

Michigan's Jon Teske tries to block the shot of Minnesota's Jordan Murphy on Feb. 21.

Back-breaking bombs

Michigan’s perimeter shooting has been spotty all season, but the Wolverines have proven they’re hard to beat when their outside shots are falling. They are 13-0 when they shoot better than 35 percent from 3-point range and are 12-0 when they make at least 10 3s.

Yet, even when the deep balls are missing in a game, Michigan has been able to find them when they need them the most thanks to the pick-and-pop prowess of Teske.

When Teske was short on his first six 3-point attempts against Maryland on Feb. 16, his seventh shot dropped with 3:12 to go and proved to be a dagger in a win that washed away the horrible taste from the Penn State debacle. Then in the rematch at Maryland on Sunday, Teske delivered in a similar fashion by draining his first deep ball on his sixth attempt that gave Michigan its largest lead with 3:13 remaining in a game it needed to stay in the conference race.

But none of Teske’s long-range missiles were more destructive than they were in the Feb. 21 victory at Minnesota. With the Gophers in desperate need of a resume-boosting win, they slowly started to shift the momentum and bring the crowd to life as they whittled a 21-point deficit down to 11 with under five minutes to play. That's when Teske shut the door and restored order with back-to-back 3-pointers that sucked the life out of the building.

“If you look at our team, we have some challenges offensively,” Beilein said after the 59-57 win at Minnesota. “You look at the percentage of him and Zavier and you're going to say, 'Why is he letting them shoot?' Because I know what I see in practice.

“I know if we're going to compete for a championship — Big Ten, Big Ten tournament, national championship — that we got to be able to score more and we can't just say, 'OK, you two aren't shooting it.' I know what I see in practice. We're going to let him (Teske) do it. If he has a 1-for-7 game sometimes, so be it. He might be 3-for-6 like he was today.”

Michigan forward Colin Castleton goes to the basket during the win over Nebraska on Feb. 28.

Man down

Michigan’s success has centered around its defense and a balanced attack that has seen each starter — sophomore guard Jordan Poole, Simpson, Matthews, Brazdeikis and Teske — lead the team in scoring at least three times this season.

But when the injury bug bit Matthews and shook up the starting lineup following the Feb. 24 to Michigan State, it seemingly came at the worst time. Michigan was a game back in the standings and facing a must-win situation heading into the final three games.

Yet, the Wolverines have been able to overcome the loss of Matthews, one of the team’s top scorers and defenders, with everyone stepping up, especially sophomore forward Isaiah Livers and freshman center Colin Castleton.

Castleton provided a much-needed boost with 11 points in nine minutes in the home finale last week that allowed Teske be more effective in less minutes. Livers, meanwhile, slid into the starting lineup and gave the offense better flow with six made 3-pointers the last two games, including a cold-blooded 3 with 54 seconds left at Maryland that gave Michigan its first road win over a team with a winning record in conference play.

While there's still no timetable for Matthews' return, his absence forced Beilein and the Wolverines to test their depth — a move that could end up paying dividends come tournament time.

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins