Wojo: No. 2 Wolverines, No. 6 Spartans spreading a state of basketball madness
The numbers keep growing, gaudier and gaudier. The possibilities keep mounting, higher and higher.
Michigan is 17-0, the best start in program history, and 31-1 in nearly a year. You can’t ignore the records, although John Beilein wouldn’t mind if you did. The second-ranked Wolverines beat Northwestern 80-60 Sunday night at Crisler Center, and they’ve been running so smoothly, the biggest challenge might be handling the hype.
Actually, it could be a state-wide epidemic, with No. 6 Michigan State (15-2) also unbeaten in the Big Ten, riding its own 10-game winning streak. The Mitten state is transforming into a college basketball showcase, and while it won’t ever top football in popularity, it’s way ahead in possibilities at the moment.
March Madness? Sure, in a couple months. Right now it’s Mitten Madness (copyrighted!).
It’s not quite Tobacco Road connecting Duke and North Carolina, but it’s the best it’s ever been around here. Michigan and Michigan State are both ranked in the top six for the first time in the AP poll’s 71-year history, and ESPN bracket expert Joe Lunardi has both slotted, for now, as No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
With the Wolverines, it’s amazing to watch, although not a surprise anymore. On a cold Sunday night, where the Crisler stands used to be half full, the place was packed to the top row to see a little slice of Michigan history. It wasn’t a fair fight, as the Wildcats were missing leading scorer Vic Law due to injury and the mood was celebratory from the opening tip.
The Wolverines attacked like they generally do, from all directions, from the defense outward. It began with rapidly emerging junior center Jon Teske alternating dunks and 3-pointers, before point guard Zavier Simpson took the spotlight. When Simpson stole the ball and swept in for a layup with seven seconds left in the first half, Michigan was on top 50-28 and the crowd was on its feet and roaring.
A sight to behold
Electric, eclectic and entertaining, that’s how the Wolverines roll these days. On this night, they got sharp shooting from two unlikely sources — the 7-foot-1 Teske and their defense-oriented leader, Zavier Simpson. Northwestern opted to back off them and try to stop everyone else, and the dare failed. The Teske-Simpson combo hit 8-of-15 3-pointers. Simpson finished with 24 points and Teske added 17.
“It’s hard to guard five or six guys that can shoot the 3,” said Teske, who has been encouraged to shoot it more and more. “It gives this team a different dimension, pick and pop, pick and roll, we can play small ball or go big.”
You know who’s noticing? Pretty much everybody.
Opposing coaches keep coming into Crisler and leaving dazed by what they experienced. After Michigan slugged North Carolina, Roy Williams gushed about how Beilein outcoached him. After Michigan slugged South Carolina, Frank Martin was effusive, talking about the Wolverines’ “championship DNA.”
This time it was Chris Collins, whose team played Michigan tougher than anyone, losing 62-60 at Northwestern in December. Of Michigan’s 17 victories, only two have been by single digits (70-62 over Western Michigan was the other).
“It’s probably the most well-rounded team (under Beilein),” Collins said. “They don’t have many flaws, they put pressure on you offensively and defensively. I’m just a big fan of their team. I feel they can compete with anybody I’ve seen so far in the country.”
Beilein might agree, although he certainly won’t say it. He doesn’t downplay how good his team might be, but he’s not interested in pumping the hype either. The first record he wrote on the locker-room whiteboard after the game was 6-0 (their Big Ten mark), not 17-0.
“Probably everybody would like me to make some great statement about being 17-0, but it’s just another game,” Beilein said with a smile. “Long way to go.”
Michigan and Michigan State are so clearly the best teams in the Big Ten right now, it makes you think hallucinogenic thoughts. Like, could both be 16-0 in the conference when they meet for the first time Feb. 24 in Ann Arbor? They play again March 9 in the regular-season finale in East Lansing.
OK, that’s taking Mitten Madness to an extreme. No, the Wolverines and Spartans will not be unscathed until then. Too many tough road games ahead.
But Tom Izzo has the type of team he loves, with a savvy, sharp-shooting leader in Cassius Winston and an array of players focused on defense, not star-chasing. Beilein also has the type of team he loves, pretty much like the team that went all the way to the NCAA championship game last spring.
That group lost to Villanova, Michigan’s only setback since a 61-52 defeat at Northwestern on Feb. 6, 2018. Gone from that team are Moe Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson. In their place: Super smooth freshman Ignas Brazdeikis, and larger roles for Jordan Poole, Isaiah Livers and Teske.
“Knock on wood, we’re like a no-maintenance type of team,” Beilein said recently. “It’s a purposeful way we recruit, to get a kid that’s gonna embrace this thing, that it’s all about the team.”
A new basketball culture definitely has grown here, just like one has grown for years at Michigan State — similar ways, although with dissimilar playing styles. Selflessness, defense, hype-averse. After the Spartans beat Penn State in a sloppy game Sunday, Izzo lamented, “Maybe we’re all talking too much about how good we are.”
Beilein also declines to count up victories or count out anyone. He notes the Wolverines have had a favorable schedule early in the Big Ten, although they do play at Wisconsin on Saturday.
Poole is the flashy one who sometimes has to be corralled, and leads the team in 3-point shooting (.452) and gasp-inducing drives. Simpson and Charles Matthews do more of the dirty work, and happily embrace maniacal defense.
“As we’ve shown, you never know who can be the leading scorer or leading rebounder or leading assist man, we just play to win,” Matthews said. “Championships aren’t won until April, or March. We understand this record means absolutely nothing right now. But we’re still happy we have it.”
The Wolverines’ feisty attitude and defensive diligence have been evident for a while now, ramped up with back-to-back Big Ten tournament titles. They also have two NCAA title-game appearances since 2013, and that team that lost the championship to Louisville was the last Michigan squad to start 16-0.
Again, Beilein isn’t interested in comparing, or touting. There will be plenty of time for that. Coaches don’t want to feed the hype because January successes don’t always foreshadow March runs, and Mitten Madness is a relatively new thing. But it’s rooted in sound basketball, excellent coaching and uniquely talented players. For now, savor the possibilities.