Wojo: Similar dangers lurk for Michigan, MSU
East Lansing — On a court in Washington, D.C., the Wolverines stood in a rain of confetti, atop the podium, atop the Big Ten, one remarkable run over, perhaps another forming. You’d call it unfathomable, except anything is fathomable this time of year.
That’s long been the mantra in East Lansing, where the atmosphere was far more subdued, but far from somber. Michigan and Michigan State stood miles and smiles apart Sunday, after the Wolverines capped an amazing march to the Big Ten tournament title with a 71-56 victory over Wisconsin.
Michigan began the tournament in fumes, jumping out of a damaged plane that slid off the runway at Willow Run Airport. Who knew the Wolverines would win four games in four days riding a different type of fumes — energy and spirit — to their first Big Ten tournament championship in 19 years?
For the next week, you’ll hear Michigan touted as a team touched by destiny, but we all know it’s not that simple. It’s about the other Ds too — Defense, Determination, Derrick Walton Jr.
At the same time, you’ll hear Michigan State downgraded, a long shot to escape the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but we all know it’s not that simple. Tom Izzo is going to the Tournament for the 20th consecutive year, taking his youngest team ever, and despite a 19-14 mark, the Spartans didn’t really have to sweat it out on Selection Sunday.
At the moment, there’s an obvious gap between these teams, in confidence, accomplishment and experience. But when Michigan and Michigan State open the Tournament Friday, they won’t be separated by quite as much. Both will play in the Midwest Region — Michigan (24-11) as a 7 seed versus Oklahoma State (20-12) in Indianapolis; Michigan State as a 9 seed versus Miami (21-11) in Tulsa, Okla. Both face dangerous big-conference opponents, and if they win, both could face national powers, with Louisville and Kansas looming, respectively.
This is why college basketball in March is unpredictable and unmatched, because fate can twist so madly and seasons can end so suddenly. Two months ago, Michigan was 14-9 and labeled soft on defense, and John Beilein was searching for answers. Today, it’s playing with energy and toughness, led by senior Walton.
“I dreamed it,” Walton said on the floor after beating Wisconsin. “I can see it in real time now, and it’s an unbelievable feeling. I wouldn’t want to do it with any other guys.”
It was Walton who told Beilein on a car ride to the airport late in the season that Michigan was going to win the Big Ten tournament, verbalizing his ratcheting confidence. It’s Walton who altered his soft-spoken nature to bark out plays and call out teammates. He may not have been named to the All-Big Ten first team — a curious snub — but he was easily the Most Outstanding Player in the tournament, scoring 29 and 22 points in the last two victories over Minnesota and Wisconsin.
The Wolverines are playing as if on a string, connected and yet free to move, like they’ve been together for a while. They have, led by seniors Walton and Zak Irvin, but they’ve never been connected like this, by the trials of a tough season, and then by a near-tragedy. The Wolverines celebrated their recent victories by merrily spraying water bottles in the locker room, and Beilein has been right in the middle, hopping around like a kid himself.
After beating the Badgers, Beilein sounded as proud as a 64-year-old man who has coached more than 1,000 games could be.
“This wasn’t about coaching, I guarantee you that,” Beilein said on the CBS radio broadcast. “These guys were so dialed in, against a really good Wisconsin team, they just all took it personally. They dialed up that last play for Duncan (Robinson), where he hit the shot. They’re doing a great job of understanding offense and defense and really dialing in.”
The Wolverines’ chances have risen dramatically, and they can make a legitimate run because they have two senior guards playing their best, and they have shooters all over the floor, including big men D.J. Wilson and Moe Wagner. Their offense can be a nightmare to defend, but their amped-up defense is what changed their season.
In some ways, Michigan looks like a classic Michigan State team, with mentally tough, experienced leaders. Izzo starts three freshmen and plays four extensively, and when Miles Bridges and Nick Ward are focused, attacking and not committing fouls, the Spartans can be a threat.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you I was ecstatic getting in,” Izzo said. “Everybody thinks it’s my time of year, but it’s really the program’s time of year. I told my players, I appreciate that we pushed and pulled a lot and could’ve thrown in the towel a few times. But I still think we’re playing some of our better basketball. I really, really mean this — I’m proud of this team for what they accomplished, although it won’t be the biggest accomplishment we’ve had and it won’t go down with many of our fans as a real accomplishment. And I think they’re ready to try to make a run.”
Izzo has said that before and done it before, although these Spartans lack the ingredients usually required to pull it off. He also knows the reverse lesson. A year ago, they won the Big Ten tournament, landed a 2 seed and were a popular pick to win it all. And then they lost their first game to Middle Tennessee State in one of the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history.
Nothing is taken for granted now, and no matter the seeding, no opportunity can be wasted.
“It doesn’t get old for me,” Izzo said. “It’s just exciting, it’s an opportunity, it’s like a rebirth. It’s so fragile, but then you win one game, and who knows what happens.”
The Spartans have lived it before. The Wolverines just spent four momentous days living it anew. What happens next is impossible to predict, and impossible to ignore.
No. 7 Michigan vs. No. 10 Oklahoma State
What: First-round game in NCAA Tournament
When: 12:15 p.m. Friday
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis
TV / radio: CBS / WWJ 950
Records: Michigan 24-11, Oklahoma State 20-12
No. 9 Michigan State vs. No. 8 Miami (Fla.)
What: First-round game in NCAA Tournament
When: Friday, 9:20 p.m.
Where: BOK Center, Tulsa, Okla.
TV / radio: TNT / WJR 760
Records: Michigan State 19-14, Miami 21-11