Wojo: Michigan under the radar, just the way Beilein likes it
New York — There will be drama, sure. Most of it probably even will be on the court in the World’s Most Famous Arena.
The story of the Big Ten basketball tournament could be the rise of a desperate upstart (Penn State? Indiana?), or the rollicking roll of Michigan State, or the unfortunate reality the conference has four very good teams and 10 not-so-good teams. The story could devolve, in the New York media spotlight, into further dissection of the FBI probe into college basketball’s cloak-room ugliness.
And then there’s this possibility: The story again could be John Beilein and a Michigan team that’s peaking at the right time, with a determined senior guard, a bunch of savvy shooters and a tougher defensive disposition. It’s not the juiciest story, and it likely won’t draw the attention that Tom Izzo, Miles Bridges and the top-seeded Spartans will.
That’s fine with Beilein, a throwback coach who considers the best kind of drama to be the least amount of drama. The fifth-seeded Wolverines (24-7) have won five in a row and are safely in the NCAA Tournament — not the case heading into the past three Big Ten tournaments — and safely removed from unsavory headlines.
This has been one of Beilein’s finest performances, molding a team that lost two senior starters and a valuable big man into a contender and dangerous NCAA threat. He helped turn a raw point guard (Zavier Simpson) into a feisty leader, and developed ideal roles for unique players Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Moe Wagner.
'THE RIGHT WAY'
In these tumultuous times, it’s not just what Beilein has done, but what he hasn’t done. He stirs no controversy, a legendary stickler for rules and details, and if he’s overlooked because of it, he has no complaints.
“I don’t want to be out there just beating your chest saying, ‘Look at us,’ ” Beilein said. “But at the same time, I do think we need spokesmen that are gonna say it can be done the right way — there’s a lot of us doing it the right way. We don’t make the news, and I still like being that guy. I want to be the guy that nobody knows, that we keep on winning, hopefully … It’s still college athletics at its best, whether we have five pros on the court or a bunch of guys that’ll be pros in other things.”
Beilein joked he’s sometimes confused with Syracuse’s longtime — and more controversial — coach. Jim Boeheim has commanded the Madison Square Garden stage for years in the Big East, so Beilein expects to be misidentified a few more times.
“You know how many times people say to me, ‘Hello, Coach Boeheim?’ ” Beilein said with a smile. “They don’t know my name, and it’s OK. I like it. I actually love it.”
It might not be so easy laying low with a Michigan team playing well enough to win the tournament for the second straight year. For fans in our state, the best story would be a Michigan-Michigan State semifinal clash on Saturday, matching the two hottest teams. It would be perfectly fitting considering they met only once in the regular season, an 82-72 Michigan victory, and the Spartans would be hungry for vengeance.
The Wolverines have to win two games first, and the concern is, they’re not accustomed to being comfortable. A year ago, they skidded into the Big Ten tournament, quite literally. Their trip to Washington D.C. began with a plane mishap on an aborted take-off, and ended with a 71-56 victory over Wisconsin in the championship game.
That Michigan team probably needed one win just to squeeze into the NCAA Tournament, and got it over Illinois, 75-55, while wearing practice clothes because its uniforms were stuck on the plane. With four victories in four days, the Wolverines became the lowest-seeded team (No. 8) ever to win the tournament, after going 10-8 in the regular season.
This season has been different in a lot of ways, mostly good ways. After losing Derrick Walton Jr., Zak Irvin and D.J. Wilson, it hasn’t exactly been plug-and-play. Beilein has instilled rare trust in freshmen Jordan Poole and Isaiah Livers. When chemistry could’ve taken a hit, senior Duncan Robinson made a smooth transition to the sixth-man role, and cranked up his defense.
Abdur-Rahkman looks like a slipperier version of Walton, who was fantastic in last year’s run. Transfer Charles Matthews has provided create-his-own-shot offense, and Wagner has adjusted nicely to defenses trying to thwart his lethal outside game. He’s still shooting 40.9 percent on 3-pointers, leads the team with a 14.4 scoring average and has vastly improved his rebounding.
The Wolverines are playing the best defense of Beilein’s 11 seasons here and they take it seriously, and personally. They were mildly miffed no Michigan player was named to the all-Big Ten defensive team, although they’re not overly interested in playing the low-respect card.
“You guys know how much I think about rankings — I think it’s pretty pointless,” Wagner said. “We’ve had a great record, but we know as well as anybody that if you’re not focused now, it’s gone like that (snaps his fingers) and nobody cares. This is money time and that’s all that matters.”
People can make jokes about “money time” in college basketball thanks to the FBI reports, and there will be some pointed questions this week. It’s part of the story, which is too bad, but it doesn’t have to be all of the story, not even close.
Purdue and Ohio State are classically built teams, leaning on talented upper classmen, and Nebraska poses a challenge. The Spartans have won 12 straight, and Cassius Winston has become riveting to watch. Same with Abdur-Rahkman, as fluid as his name, and Wagner, as expressive and dynamic as a big man can be.
The Spartans (28-3) won the regular season, but tote ample motivation to convince people they’re a No. 1 seed and an NCAA favorite. The Wolverines could climb from the 5-6 seed range with a run, which admittedly doesn’t provide the same urgency as win-to-get-in.
“It’s very natural that teams go into this tournament, if they think they’re a lock, they don’t play at the level they need to,” Beilein said. “The last couple of years, we certainly weren’t a lock, and we played so well. We’re trying to instill we need to play the same way, no matter the situation. We’re playing for a championship.”
That’s still what this is about, ultimately, technically. The Wolverines showed last year what real drama looks like, and how exhilarating tournament basketball can be. In the next few days, we expect to see a few more reminders.
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.