Ann Arbor, Mi. On February 6th the University of Michigan’s men basketball team was reeling. Coming off back-to-back blowout, home losses to rivals Indiana and Michigan State, Michigan’s tournament hopes were in doubt, and head coach John Beilein had few answers for his team’s futile home performances.
Michigan continued their mediocre play and stumbled to the end of the season. A demoralizing home loss to the struggling Iowa Hawkeyes in the Big Ten finale capped what was a disappointing regular season and showed symptoms of a much bigger problem: Michigan lacked the toughness needed to win consistently at the highest level of college basketball.
Throughout the season Michigan’s lack of toughness was readily apparent and frustrating to even the most casual of fans. Michigan was routinely handled on the glass, losing the rebounding battle in the majority of their Big Ten games. Michigan’s defense was not much better, with simple dribble-drives and pick and roll plays often resulting in easy points in the paint for opponents.
Worse, and perhaps most frustrating, was Michigan’s inability to respond to adversity. A 25-0 first half run by Indiana, an 89-74 beat-down at the hands of Michigan State, and the crucial home loss to Iowa by double figures showed Michigan’s lack of mental fortitude, even at home. It appeared just one blow was enough to demoralize and knock the Wolverines out of a game.
Yet, as gloomy as the situation appeared to be heading into the Big Ten tournament, the Wolverines finally showed the toughness we had been waiting to see all year. In tournament wins against Northwestern and Indiana, Michigan responded to late deficits through hustle and clutch shots of their own. Against Northwestern Zak Irvin and Duncan Robinson hit big shots to send the game into overtime, and eventually to a Michigan win.
Trailing Indiana by 5 in the final two minutes of Michigan’s biggest game of the year, defensive stops by the Wolverines coupled with clutch threes by Duncan Robinson and unlikely hero Kameron Chatman led the Wolverines to victory.
After making the NCAA tournament field as an 11 seed, Michigan faced a first four matchup with Tulsa in Dayton. Tulsa was just the of type experienced, athletic, and physical team that gave Michigan problems all season long. After Tulsa came out of halftime with a furious rally, it appeared Michigan was reliving a narrative all too familiar to Wolverine fans. The Golden Hurricanes were imposing their will on Michigan in the paint, and Michigan’s offense became stagnant and ineffective.
Yet, much like the Big Ten tournament, Michigan responded to each Tulsa push with clutch plays of their own. On the defensive end freshman forward Mo Wagner had a career-high four blocks and altered many more shots, while Michigan forced two huge Tulsa turnovers in the final 3 minutes. Offensively, junior Zak Irvin played hero with a clutch three in the final minute to put the Wolverines up for good.
All season long the Wolverine’s have lacked the toughness to respond to adversity and the grit to win close games. Yet we have seen a different Michigan team this postseason. While Michigan has still been prone to stagnant offense and poor defense at times, the Wolverines have shown a newfound tenacity and resilience.
Michigan has trailed in the final five minutes of each of their postseason victories so far, yet they have found a way to win. And it has not just been clutch shooting that has carried Michigan to victory. The hustle plays, the defensive stops, and key rebounds down the stretch of games that seemed to elude Michigan all season have carried the Wolverines to victory.
These plays show just how different this Michigan team is from the one we watched all season. These Wolverines fight. They punch back. They out-hustle opponents. They respond to adversity. And that is just how you win games in March.
Michigan faces a tough challenge Friday night against a very talented Notre Dame team. Notre Dame’s size and strength, notably forward Zach Auguste, will be a challenge for John Beilein’s bigs to handle in the post. But if the Wolverines play with the grit, toughness, and mental fortitude they have played with so far in March, I would not count the Wolverines out. Not against Notre Dame, and for that matter, not against anyone.