Niyo: Playing with nothing to lose is UM's gain

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Chicago — They can't win if they worry.

But if Michigan plays like this, like a team with "nothing to lose," as that notorious riverboat gambler John Beilein requested before the Big Ten tournament opener, he's convinced anything can happen.

Or at least something good, something like what we saw Thursday at the United Center, where ninth-seeded Michigan throttled No. 8 seed Illinois, 73-55, to advance to today's quarterfinals against Big Ten champ Wisconsin.

A daunting task? Sure. The Badgers are 28-3 and ranked sixth in the country, with an outside shot at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And while Beilein is 8-0 in Big Ten tournament openers, he's 1-7 after that.

"But there's absolutely no pressure on us now," junior Spike Albrecht said. "No one's expecting us to do any damage here."

So what's the harm in having a little fun before they head home, right?

That was the plan Thursday, and that was certainly the result for the Wolverines, who raced to a big early lead, withstood one first-half rally from the Illini, and then coasted.

A .500 team that'd lost its two most valuable players to injury in January, and eight of its last 11 since, including four overtime heartbreakers, looked more like one of Beilein's recent NCAA Tournament teams Thursday.

They rained in 3s early, hitting 6-of-10 before halftime. They casually tossed alley-oops, from Zak Irvin to Aubrey Dawkins and even Kam Chatman to Max Bielfeldt. And when the numbers weren't there on the break, no need to fret, as Albrecht channeled his inner Bob Cousy, dropping a behind-the-head no-looker to Dawkins for an emphatic dunk.

"That's the first time I've tried that one in a game," Albrecht said.

Just have fun

But if not now, when? That was the idea, they all agreed, after this winter of Michigan's discontent, one that forced Beilein to turn to his freshmen long before he — or they — were ready. Enough with the growing pains. Time to wipe the slate clean, and see what these kids really can do, without expectations.

"I think it makes it a lot easier for them," said Albrecht, one of the two upperclassmen still playing for this Michigan team. "So they're just going out and having fun, not worrying about mistakes."

Not really worrying about repercussions, either.

"With our limited roster, I mean, I tell 'em all the time, 'Look around, who else is gonna come in?' " Albrecht said. "I mean, this is what we've got. Go out and have fun, man. If you mess up, you mess up. It doesn't mean the coach is gonna pull you out.' "

Asked if Beilein had approved of that message, Albrecht laughed.

"I don't know if he has," he said, "but that's what I tell 'em."

I'm not sure what Illinois coach John Groce told his team Thursday. But whatever it was, it didn't work. The Illini shot 31 percent in the first half, finished with a total of five assists — one fewer than Irvin — and led for all of 48 seconds in a game it felt it had to win to have a shot at an NCAA bid.

"We haven't played like we did today all year," Groce sighed afterward.

Chemistry surfaces

Michigan really hasn't, either, though. Beilein admitted as much after the game, talking about the "epiphany" moments he's witnessed in practice the last two weeks from his young group, finally finding an on-court chemistry in the wake of those season-altering injuries to Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton.

There were a handful of plays Thursday that caught the coach's eye, too, even beyond the contested 3-pointer from Albrecht that halted the early Illini run and had the coach high-fiving Walton on the bench. Plays at both ends, he said, "that flat out weren't happening last week, let alone two months ago."

Some of it is Irvin, who finally is showing he's more than just a shooter. The sophomore had five assists at halftime Thursday. He had five total in his first 11 games this season.

But much of it, clearly, is the freshmen, who'd shown flashes but now are starting to flourish. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, who looked like he'd hit the rookie wall in recent weeks, was attacking the basket again, finishing with 15 points and a career-best eight rebounds. Dawkins, who poured in 31 points in the regular-season finale against Rutgers, added 18 more Thursday to lead all scorers.

"You look at those freshmen, we couldn't think about putting them in the game earlier in the year," Beilein said. "They just were not ready defensively, and every day the scout team was beating them and beating them and they were missing switches and missing assignments."

But at a certain point, he shrugged, "We had no other choice."

And in the end, maybe that's not such a bad thing, after all.