Niyo: Michigan shows just how scrappy it can be

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Muhammad-Ali Abdul-Rahkman looks for a teammate while being pressured by Wisconsin’s Josh Gasser.

Chicago — With Michigan's season down to its final minute, perhaps, John Beilein figured it was time to let everyone know what he really thought.

Not just about the game, but also about his team.

Michigan was undermanned against top-seeded Wisconsin, and feeling a bit underappreciated as well, what with the foul discrepancy so one-sided in a game that clearly wasn't.

So after freshman Aubrey Dawkins went hard to the hoop and came up empty — harm, but no foul — and with the game all but decided, Beilein decided to share his displeasure. His team hadn't shot a single free throw all game, and he sarcastically reminded the officials about it. Just one time, he yelled. Humor me.

"It was just a general, overall disagreement," Beilein explained later, smiling as he stood in the hallway outside the locker room.

And though the refs didn't find any humor in his remarks — slapping Beilein with his first technical this season — it wasn't hard to find the symbolism.

With his young team refusing to go quietly, Beilein wasn't, either. And if this was the end — Friday's quarterfinal loss at the Big Ten tournament leaves Michigan (16-16) begging for an NIT berth — this was a fitting way for the Wolverines to go out.

Instead of scrapping a season derailed by a mix of injuries and inexperience, they learned how to scrap. They even started to enjoy it, this whole "season of growth" as Beilein kept calling it. And once they did, they started to, as Dawkins put it, "find out how tough we really are."

All of which made Friday's result — a 71-60 loss — both tough to stomach and strangely satisfying, playing the Big Ten's best — at 29-3, the senior-led Badgers are still vying for a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs — to a draw until the final few minutes.

"Yeah, it's definitely tough, because everything's really starting to click," said sophomore Zak Irvin, who led the Wolverines with 21 points and 11 rebounds. "Wisconsin's a great team, but we were battling. We were right there."

'A very good team'

Where they go from here remains to be seen. Beilein isn't hiding his desire to keep playing, quietly lobbying for a berth despite his team's .500 record. (Actually, it's a sub-.500 mark if you ignore the season-opening victory over Division II Hillsdale.)

"I expect that (selection committee) will be very fair, and they will pick the right 32 teams," Beilein said. "And I think if people look beneath the record right now and understand what we went through, we're a very good team."

A good draw as well, which should help, along with Michigan's strength of schedule, ranked in the top 10 in the country.

If the Wolverines do get in, they're capable of making a run like they did in 2004 and '06. Or the way Beilein's last West Virginia team did, winning the NIT in 2007 and laying the foundation there for a Sweet 16 run the following spring and a Final Four trip in 2010.

"That would be good for us to do," Beilein said. "It'd be a great experience."

As were the last few months, as trying as they became, with the coaching staff forced to juggle the lineup after Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton went down and the underclassmen forced to take on expanded roles.

Freshmen accounted for nearly half of Michigan's minutes on the court again Friday, and facing a bigger, stronger team in Wisconsin — smarter, too — the Wolverines still managed to shoot 52 percent. They were beaten on the boards — second-chance points decided this game — but they weren't beaten down, by any means.

And watching Ricky Doyle work All-American Frank Kaminsky with an up-and-under move — Doyle finished 6-for-6 — or Dawkins soaring for a putback dunk to ignite the bench, it was hard not to play the what-if game.

Future revealed

How good would this team be with a healthy LeVert and Walton? There's no telling, of course, and we may never know, since LeVert may opt to leave early for the NBA.

But in the absence of that answer, the Wolverines seem to have found some others — Irvin's transformation, Albrecht's leadership, Dawkins' athleticism, and so on.

And as they wait to learn their fate, that's an encouraging thought, even in defeat.

"We finally picked it up," Dawkins said, nodding, "and we saw what kind of team we can be."