Michigan has something to prove as it targets Big Ten tournament three-peat
Ann Arbor — Michigan walked into the Breslin Center last weekend with a shot to win a title.
The Wolverines could see it. They could taste it. And by halftime, they could feel the Big Ten regular-season championship in their hands.
But by the end of it, Michigan walked out empty-handed stinging from another loss to rival Michigan State and a second-half collapse that saw a share of the crown slip through its fingers.
“There's heartbreak at the end of the season, but I've had bigger heartbreaks,” Michigan coach John Beilein said on Wednesday. “You just move on and you've got something else going right in front of you.”
What’s lies ahead for No. 10 Michigan (25-6) is another opportunity to win another title — and a chance to make history in the process.
The Wolverines will head to the Big Ten tournament at the United Center in Chicago as the two-time defending champions and will look to become the first conference team to win three straight titles since it began in 1998.
Michigan will open play at approximately 9:30 p.m. Friday in the quarterfinals against the winner of Thursday’s matchup between Iowa and Illinois.
Among Power Five programs, Michigan will also be vying to join a short list to three-peat in a conference tournament: N.C. State, North Carolina and Duke (twice) in the ACC; Kentucky (four times), Alabama and Florida in the SEC; Kansas (twice) and Oklahoma in the Big 12; and Arizona in the Pac-12.
“We've been telling the younger guys — X (Zavier Simpson), I and Charles (Matthews) — it's pretty much a different season right now. It's win or go home,” junior center Jon Teske said. “We went back-to-back and not a lot of people are able to do that. It goes into all the hard work we put in since the summer and all the guys that I’ve been able to play with.
“To continue that this year with the younger guys it would be another special moment.”
While the goal remains the same, the conditions this time around are a little bit different than they were the past two years.
The Wolverines entered the Big Ten tournament two seasons ago as the No. 8 seed fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives. On top of that, they had to endure a plane mishap that led to them playing their first game in their practice uniforms and sparked an improbable run.
Last year, Michigan rolled into the tournament as one of the hottest teams and stayed hot, ripping through the field as the No. 5 seed and rattling off four wins in four days once again.
This season, the Wolverines are already comfortably in the NCAA Tournament field and grabbed a coveted double-bye for the first time as the No. 3 seed. But according to Beilein, that doesn’t provide any sort of advantage.
Michigan has had to prepare for three possible opponents — Iowa, Illinois and Northwestern — throughout the week as opposed to two foes last year and one the year before that for its opening game. There’s also the fact Michigan will be playing a team who’s already used to the balls, rims and court — “It's not easy and you've just got to go and plow through it,” Beilein said — and there’s still uncertainty whether redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews will be ready to return after missing three games with a right ankle sprain.
“The last couple of years we've had a great edge about us going into this tournament because of the fact we probably had to win a game or two to be sure we were in,” Beilein said. “But I think one of the very few good things about our loss last Saturday was I believe it's provided that edge back again to a team that has had a season like we have and can go into a tournament with real goals other than, 'Wouldn't it be nice to win the tournament?' Because the NCAA Tournament is right around the corner, now it's something we'd love to go in and win this.
“We've won a few in a row now and wouldn't that be something to go in and win a championship in three days? Someone said to me, ‘Is it easier?’ I said, 'Are you kidding me?' To win four in a row is really hard. Three in a row is like the exact same thing. It all melds together.”
But not the memories, where some of the fondest of Beilein’s career stand out in the Big Ten tournament.
There’s Kam Chatman’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer over top-seeded Indiana that put Michigan into the NCAA Tournament three years ago. There’s the whirlwind week where the Wolverines turned near tragedy into triumph and became the lowest seed to win it. And there’s last season’s title defense where Michigan made it eight straight wins in the event.
“We'd like to go in this and duplicate what we've done,” Beilein said.
To do so, the Wolverines will have roughly 44 hours to accomplish something that has never been done in the Big Ten.
But for a team that’s looking to recapture what it had earlier in the season and still feels like it has something to prove after falling in the finale, that’s added fuel to a raging fire.
“That's definitely motivation for us,” freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis said of a possible three-peat. “I don't feel like we feel any pressure towards that. I feel like it's literally just to motivate us even more to win it again.”
After letting one title get away, Michigan has another chance. A chance to wash away the sting of last weekend. A chance at a different ending. A chance to change their trajectory.
And a chance to leave a lasting mark by heading home with a third straight conference championship in tow.
“Seeing them (teammates) get their rings and seeing those banners get put up is like, 'Damn, we want that same exact thing,'” Brazdeikis said. “That definitely motivates all of us and I feel like even the returning players who won that, they want another taste of that. I feel like seeing that happen and the happiness on everyone's faces motivates us to get that.
“We've got to keep that going.”