Wojo: Mich-again — Wolverines are legit NCAA contenders

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

New York — They can hit from so many directions, in so many ways right now. They’re shooting with precision and shutting down with passion, and they just completed another impressive climb up the Big Ten championship ladder.

This was Michigan showing all it can do, and all it still might do. If there’s a more-dangerous team anywhere, good luck identifying it. The Wolverines swept into New York and took the Big Ten by force, dumping Purdue 75-66 Sunday to win their second straight conference tournament title.

Who knows what awaits in the unpredictable tides of March, with Selection Sunday a week away. But you easily can argue Michigan has climbed as high as a three seed, with a shot at opening the NCAA Tournament at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.

With four straight victories by an average margin of 11 points, including back-to-back beatings of Michigan State and Purdue, the Wolverines flashed the ingredients so important this time of year, from the shooting star (Moe Wagner) to the pit-bull point guard (Zavier Simpson), to an array of interchangeable pieces, all wrapped by a sticky defense. Don’t let their smooth-shooting style fool you — they get after it as fiercely as they ever have under John Beilein, and showed it in dismantling the Boilermakers, who had won the two regular-season meetings.

More:Wolverines’ Teske seizes unlikely moment in spotlight

“We got better and better as the year went on,” Beilein said on the floor afterward, before his team cut down the nets. “These kids sacrificed so much for the team —the team, the team, the team.”

March-ing onward

There it is again, the football mantra, and here it was again, on full display. Wagner was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman joined him on the all-tournament team. But truthfully, Michigan’s most valuable player probably was Simpson, who helped harass another good opposing guard, Carsen Edwards, into ineffectiveness. Duncan Robinson, the gifted shooter who accepted a sixth-man role, also has developed into a solid defender, as has transfer Charles Matthews.

You want the moment that represents the short view and the long view? It came with about six minutes left, as Simpson drove to the basket, appeared in trouble, then flipped the ball to Jon Teske, and the backup big man thunder-dunked for an 18-point lead. Out of virtually nowhere, Simpson has become an elite leader. Out of nowhere, Teske came rolling down the lane, and finished with 14 points against Purdue’s imposing frontline, which features 7-foot-2 Isaac Hass.

Michigan needed all it had to hold the big Haas down. He scored 23 but was hammered into foul trouble and limited to 23 minutes, and Purdue’s other options were stymied, hitting only four of 17 3-pointers.

With nine straight victories, Michigan has shown it can slap you with defense and stagger you with shooting, inside and out. The Wolverines (28-7) said they were catapulted by an ugly defeat at Northwestern a month ago, and haven’t lost since.

Perhaps it’s time Beilein takes his turn with the Mr. March moniker. Two months ago, the Wolverines were a collection of pieces with ill-defined roles. Wagner was struggling, although never regretting his decision to turn down the NBA. Gradually, the pieces coalesced, with Simpson and Abdur-Rahkman forming a rock-man solid backcourt.

“Everybody goes through that in college basketball, finding their roles, and whoever does it the best is the team that wins at the end,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “And I think we’re doing it well. I think that’s just what John Beilein teams do, they always come together at the end of the season because he teaches a lot. I think we’ve grown our identity into being a versatile team — not just shooting 3s — so we can win games like this, no matter the style of the game.”

They can slug a bit physically, although Beilein still frets about fouls. More than anything, as players get comfortable with their roles, they play unafraid. Just look at Teske, the 7-1 sophomore center who scored four points in the first three games here. He came in because Wagner was about to get in serious foul trouble grappling with Haas, and Teske used his size to make plays.

They call him Jon Sleep because he likes to, you know, sleep. But Teske was testy and awake with a throaty roar after dunking on Haas. It might’ve produced the most exuberant reaction on the Michigan bench the entire tournament.

“I don’t even remember what was going through my head, all the emotion just spilled out,” Teske said. “Coach B always says there are outliers in our locker room and you never know who it’ll be. I guess today was my day.”

Star of the day

You truly never know who it’ll be on this team. Once again, Wagner struggled in the first half, then erupted in the second and finished with 17 points. Five players averaged double figures in the four games.

Is free-throw shooting still an issue? Yep, as the Wolverines hit only 15 of 25 against Purdue. Did they cave when it seemed they were ripe to do so? Nope.

“This is one of the best teams I’ve ever coached at just moving forward and doing things the old-fashioned way with a lot of hard work,” Beilein said. “They won’t give in. They won’t give in to fatigue. They won’t give in to momentum changes. … There might be some teams with more talent, but we have just a great team, a real team.”

It’s been compelling to watch it form, although we’ve seen it before, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. By avenging two narrow losses to Purdue, Michigan beat every Big Ten team at least once. With consecutive victories over top-10 teams, the Wolverines have earned pretty much the same lofty expectations as Michigan State, and might end up with the same seeding.

Tom Izzo’s group is famously considered a beast in March, and for the moment, Michigan has matched and topped it. But that’s getting ahead of the story, because here in New York, standing on damp carpet in a locker room sprayed by celebratory water, the players and coaches were more interested in soaking than boasting.

“We have such connectivity between each other, on and off the court,” Wagner said. “Everyone is buying into the whole goal so much. We’re so committed — no personal agendas, no egos.”

More: Big Ten teams face week of uncertainty

It’s a down-home approach, sort of like the homeopathic approach Beilein was forced to use during the game.

His voice wracked by laryngitis, he slurped hot tea with lemon on the sideline, and joked afterward, “I mean, who does that?!”

Who throws in a little-used 7-footer to battle a Big Ten behemoth and expect him to respond? Who expects a lethal-shooting senior with underwhelming defensive skills to accept a completely different role and become a productive defender, as the 6-8 Robinson has?

“We believe in each other, and when we step on the floor, we expect to win,” Robinson said. “That’s how you gotta play, with that confidence and that chip. I just feel like we can beat anybody, we can play with anybody, we’re as good as anybody. I think we’ve proven it the last couple days. We feel like we can stick our noses in there with anybody.”

They stuck their noses and everything else in, and came out with a championship. It’ll take a lot more to keep winning, but as the Wolverines graphically showed, they have more pieces and possibilities than many people realized.