Niyo: Michigan flying high after storybook ending

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Michigan guard Derrick Walton Jr., center, reacts after being named most outstanding player for the Big Ten tournament.

Washington  —  As the final seconds ticked off the clock, the party already underway in the stands and on a giddy Michigan bench inside the Verizon Center, Derrick Walton Jr. dropped to one knee on the court, put his head down and said a little prayer.

But he made it a quick one, because Michigan’s senior point guard knew what was coming next. Walton braced for impact as his teammates came hurtling down the court, celebrating Michigan’s first Big Ten tournament championship in two decades — sealed by Sunday’s 71-56 romp over Wisconsin — and the most improbable title run this conference has ever seen.

That it ended in a happy collision seemed like poetic justice after everything this team had been through, from the harried moments of doubt at midseason to the harrowing plane accident Wednesday back in Michigan. And after that hurried entrance here to start this Big Ten tourney — dressed like an intramural team in practice jerseys, the UM pep band playing borrowed instruments — here they were at the end, the last team still smiling and the lowest seed (No. 8) ever to cut down the nets.

“It’s surreal, man,” said Walton, who was named the tournament’s most outstanding player Sunday after another commanding performance — 22 points, seven assists, six rebounds — against the Badgers. “I remember vividly just trying to hop out of a plane, and now we’ve got confetti falling from the sky. So it’s been a great chain of events, and I definitely feel blessed to be a part of it.”

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They all do, of course. And before they could look ahead, to a No. 7 seed in Indianapolis and Friday’s NCAA Tournament opener against Oklahoma State, they couldn’t help but reflect on how they got here.

Michigan (24-11) may be one of the hottest teams in the country right now, winners of 10 of their last 12 games, with the lone defeats coming in overtime at Minnesota and on a crazy buzzer-beater at Northwestern. But the Wolverines also are one of the most thankful teams, too.

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And judging by the way coach John Beilein’s eyes kept watering these last few days, you could sense this was coming. Never mind that the Wolverines hadn’t won this tournament since the very first year it was held in 1998, a title the school later had to vacate due to NCAA sanctions.

Sunday, after Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany handed the trophy to Beilein, the coach took the microphone to address the thousands of Michigan fans who’d stuck around.

Signature moment

“Today we didn’t need much of a pregame speech,” he said. “I just said, ‘Guys, it’s gonna be five years, 10 year, 20 years later, and if you can win this thing — and we can win it — you’re gonna come back one day and you’re gonna say to your sons and your daughters, I want to tell you …”

No. 7 seed UM faces high-scoring Oklahoma State team

His voice broke with emotion again, and the fans roared in support, before Beilein continued.

“I want to tell you,” he said, “about those five days, those four wins, and the Michigan Wolverines.”

And what can you say about these Wolverines? A team that was starting to look like a tournament long shot in January is now going to be a dark horse Final Four pick for many the way it is playing in March.

Michigan’s offense isn’t just the most efficient in the Big Ten. It’s rated the fifth-most efficient in the country by KenPom’s advanced metrics, right up there with Villanova, UCLA, North Carolina and Duke. The Wolverines’ first-half shooting numbers in this tournament were eye-popping: 59 percent vs. Illinois, 52 percent vs. Purdue, 63 percent vs. Minnesota and 59 percent vs. Wisconsin in Sunday’s final.

The defense is another matter, still. But it’s no longer a laughing one. Over the last 12 games, Michigan has improved dramatically in that way, holding opponents to 45 percent shooting — and barely 30 percent at the three-point line — while forcing more turnovers.

“We went from being one of the worst defensive teams in the Big Ten to being Big Ten champs, and you don’t do that without playing defense,” forward Duncan Robinson said. “So we’ve grown a lot.”

They’re doing a better job of closing out on shooters, and playing aggressively rather than “trying not to make mistakes,” as Beilein put it. And while Moritz Wagner and Wilson still get manhandled inside at times, they’re deficiencies Michigan can live with — and win with — for the most part, knowing those skilled big men can exploit mismatches at the other end.

Consider, there aren’t many better post-oriented offenses in the country than Purdue and Wisconsin, and yet Michigan went 4-0 against those two teams in the last month. Sunday, the Badgers scored a total of two points on their first 10 possessions of the second half, and they shot just 26 percent after the break.

“That’s huge for us,” said Zak Irvin, whose team also forced the Badgers into 15 turnovers.

Fooey on fatigue

Michigan’s weary legs were an issue this weekend, sure. Nothing can prepare you for four games in four days — one an overtime slugfest with top-seeded Purdue — and Irvin played in 156 of 165 minutes.

“But being tired wasn’t an option,” Walton said.

Especially not for the two seniors who led the way here in Washington, almost as if they were taking turns taking charge.

Both made the all-tournament team — Wilson probably deserved a nod, too — and each made it clear they weren’t going to be denied, hitting clutch shots and diving for loose balls.

Sunday, when Wisconsin cut the lead to six points with 6:19 to play, they reminded everyone what happened in Madison in mid-January when Michigan blew a similar lead late.

“It was talked about during the timeout: ‘They’re not getting us this time,’” said Irvin, who responded immediately with a 3-pointer on the next possession. “We’ve worked way too hard, we’ve been through so much.”

And once they’d gotten past the shock of Wednesday’s scary incident at Willow Run Airport, that was the message, spoken and unspoken.

“Once we landed in D.C., we agreed that, ‘Why can’t this be the greatest story ever told?’” Irvin said. “Everybody had that mentality: ‘Why not us?’”

But the best part about it, the part they’ll all remember five years from now — or 10 or 20 — is what Wagner, the 19-year-old sophomore, was talking about in the locker room Sunday.

“This experience makes you appreciate everything so much more,” he said, smiling. “But the story is one thing. You’ve still got to write the story, right? I mean, you’ve still got to win the game.”

And that's what this was all about Sunday: Michigan wasn't ready to turn the page on this remarkable tale until it had just the right ending.

No. 7 Michigan vs. No. 10 Oklahoma State

What: First-round game in NCAA Tournament

When: 12:15 p.m. Friday

Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis

TV/radio: CBS/ 950

Records: Michigan 24-11, Oklahoma State 20-12

Tickets: mgoblue.com

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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