As Michigan’s Duncan Robinson prepared to shoot a free throw with seven minutes left in Sunday’s Big Ten title game, he was interrupted by the sight of some maize and blue confetti falling from the Madison Square Garden rafters.
Whoever was in charge of the postgame celebration saw no need to wait any longer to crown the surging Wolverines.
One year after reeling off four victories in four days to win the Big Ten tournament as a No. 8 seed, Michigan repeated that feat as a No. 5 seed this week. The Wolverines cruised to a 75-66 victory over third-seeded Purdue in Sunday’s title game, becoming the first Big Ten school to go back-to-back since Ohio State did it in 2010 and 2011.
If Michigan opened some eyes by dismantling a desperate Nebraska team in the quarterfinals and thwarting Michigan State’s bid for revenge in the semis, the Wolverines converted some new believers with their performance against Purdue. They broke open a close game in the second half with their formidable defense and lethal outside shooting, increasing their lead to as much as 18 points before easing their foot off the gas pedal.
Michigan’s performance in the Big Ten tournament could elevate the red-hot Wolverines (27-7, 13-5) all the way to a No. 3 seed on Selection Sunday. They now boast a 7-5 record in quadrant 1 games highlighted by a season sweep of Michigan State, one win apiece over Ohio State and Purdue and a non-conference road victory at Texas.
Wherever Michigan lands in the bracket, the Wolverines will be a team nobody will want to draw. They’ll carry the momentum of a nine-game win streak into the NCAA tournament, assuming they don’t cool off during the 10-day layoff before the opening round tips off.
Last year’s Michigan team rode the duo of point guard Derrick Walton and center Moritz Wagner to NCAA tournament victories over Oklahoma State and Louisville before falling to Oregon by a single point in the Sweet 16. This year’s Wolverines have the potential to go even farther since this is by far the best defensive team of the mostly offense-first John Beilein era.
Fueled by the pitbull mentality of point guard Zavier Simpson and the length and athleticism prevalent across the rest of the roster, Michigan has evolved into a top 10 defense that prides itself on taking away whatever its opponent does best. The Wolverines held Nebraska to 1-for-20 shooting during a pivotal first-half stretch on Friday and stifled Michigan State into its lowest shooting percent of the season one day later.
“I think they’re a little tougher, personally,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said Saturday. “I think [wing Charles] Matthews is a great athlete that prides himself on guarding. And Simpson 100 percent prides himself on his defense. So you’ve got two pretty good defenders in places where I think it’s important.”
Michigan’s strategy of blanketing Purdue’s shooters and forcing Isaac Haas to score 1-on-1 in the post was the same as in two previous regular season meetings, but the Wolverines did a better job of executing it Sunday. The typically sweet-shooting Boilermakers only sank 4 of 17 attempts from behind the arc, and many of the misses were rushed or forced shots as they tried desperately to get back into the game.
Defense kept Michigan in good position while its shots weren’t falling in the first half. The Wolverines then pulled away in the second half thanks to a 16-5 surge powered by threes from Simpson, Wagner and senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman.
Soon after that run was over, the confetti started falling.
Michigan’s impressive surge had drained any drama from the Big Ten title game. It was time to start looking ahead to what these Wolverines are capable of the rest of the month.
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