Michigan’s Road To The NCAA Tournament

By Andrew Kahn

For much of the nonconference and the start of the Big Ten season, Michigan struggled to return to the level it showed during two November games in New York. Halfway through league play, Michigan’s defense started to catch up with its ultra-efficient offense, and the Big Ten Tournament champs enter the NCAA Tournament playing as well as any team in the country.

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Preseason expectation: Six Big Ten teams were ahead of Michigan in the major polls in the preseason (Michigan was 42 in the AP and 44 in the Coaches). While the Big Ten does not release official preseason rankings, many media people pegged the Wolverines for a fifth-place finish, around .500 in the league. There was reason for optimism: Michigan had made the NCAA Tournament the year before and didn’t lose anyone of significance (Caris LeVert, now of the Brooklyn Nets, graduated, but was hurt for the most of the season). Seniors Derrick Walton, Jr., and Zak Irvin gave Michigan one of the most experienced backcourts in the country, but there were questions about the young frontcourt.

November 17-18: Michigan travels to Madison Square Garden and dominates the 2K Classic, using fast starts to pummel Marquette and SMU. Both opponents are heading to the NCAA Tournament (SMU has lost just once since the calendar turned to December). Redshirt sophomore forward D.J. Wilson makes his first career start in New York and earns his first double-double against Marquette. Walton drains seven threes against SMU.

Key dates: Playing at home in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, Michigan leads Virginia Tech for more than 37 minutes and by as many as 15, but collapses late and loses by three. After the game, coach John Beilein points to bizarre defensive lapses and says last year’s Tournament appearance may have fooled Michigan into thinking it is better than it really is.

December 10: Michigan visits then-No. 2 UCLA in Pauley Pavilion and the teams nearly break the scoreboard in the first half, combining for 22 made threes. Tied at 50 at the break, the Wolverines can’t keep up in the second half and lose 102-84. Coming off a poor offensive performance (albeit in victory) against Texas, the scoring output, especially on the road, is a confidence booster for Michigan. The Wolverines win their next three games, against weaker competition, to finish the nonconference with a 10-3 record.

January 11: Michigan starts Big Ten play 1-3 after an 85-69 loss at Illinois. The defensive numbers for Michigan are troubling, as the Illini shoot 64 percent from the field and from three (9 of 14). After the game, Illinois senior center Maverick Morgan calls Michigan a “white-collar team,” which will prove to be a significant motivator for the Wolverines.

January 27: Following the Illinois loss, the Wolverines win three of their next four, culminating with a 90-60 shellacking of Indiana. With the emergence of Wilson and sophomore center Moritz Wagner, Beilein starts five players who can shoot from the outside, which really puts a strain on opposing defenses. During this stretch of games, the Wolverines also avenge their loss to Illinois, wearing blue jerseys at home in response to Morgan’s comments.

February 4: After a disappointing but understandable loss at Michigan State, the Wolverines lay an egg at home against Ohio State. Michigan is killed on the boards and the defense still has fundamental issues. Sitting at 4-6 in the Big Ten, the players seem at a loss, frustrated by their inability to consistently turn points of emphasis (defense; execution down the stretch) into on-court results.

February 25: Michigan scores a signature win, 82-70, over eventual Big Ten regular season champ Purdue to improve to 9-7 in the league. A month earlier, Beilein said his team needed an “outlier,” someone to elevate his game and, in turn, the team. That player was Walton. The point guard’s transformation from good to great is pivotal to Michigan’s turnaround. He is complete command of the offense, finishing around the rim, burying threes, and finding open teammates, plus leading Michigan’s improved defensive attack. Against Purdue, Walton finishes with 17 points, 11 rebounds, and five assists.

March 8: The Wolverines are supposed to leave for the Big Ten Tournament in Washington, D.C., but, amid heavy winds, the team plane never gets off the ground, skidding off the runway and forcing an emergency evacuation. Walton needs stitches in his thigh but nobody is seriously hurt.

March 9-12: Scheduled to tip against Illinois at noon, Michigan arrives, via the Detroit Pistons’ team plane, just a couple of hours before the game, which is eventually pushed back 20 minutes. Wearing maize practice jerseys and blue shorts—their gear remained under the plane as part of an investigation—Michigan’s focus and energy overwhelms the Illini. The next day, with their real uniforms, they upset top seed Purdue in overtime. Their unexpected run continues with wins over Minnesota and Wisconsin to capture the program’s second Big Ten Tournament championship and first since the inaugural event in 1998.

The road ahead: Michigan is awarded the 7 seed in the Midwest Region, facing 10-seed Oklahoma State on Friday in Milwaukee. The victor will face the winner of 2-seed Louisville and Jacksonville State.

Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local. He writes about college basketball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com, and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at andrewjkahn@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.

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