Fists clenched, mouth agape and eyes wide, Tim Hardaway Jr. found himself alone on the north end of the Crisler Center floor. The junior guard had just plowed his way through traffic on a feed from Trey Burke and finished with an emphatic one-handed flush.
He crow-hopped his way down the floor after the slam, one that put No. 5 Michigan up 46-34, and got captured in the moment. Lost in the thrill, he failed to realize that Slippery Rock had just been called for an inbound violation and he was needed back on the south end. But who could blame him?
It had been a while since Hardaway had entered the zone.
By time Slippery Rock scored next, it was a 20-point game, and Hardaway can be held responsible. Burke, the sophomore point guard, noticed that Hardaway was feeling it.
“You just see that fire that he comes with,” Burke said. “When we see that as a team, that’s when we try to feed him.”
Hardaway was fed and would not stop eating.
Following the jam, Hardaway and the rest of the team could tell he was on. As soon as he caught the ball two positions later, he banged home a 3-pointer while getting fouled. The next time down the floor, he caught a pass from senior guard Matt Vogrich and let it fly, banging home another three points. An alley-oop dunk a couple minutes later made the point even louder.
He wasn’t about to take a back seat this season.
After injecting life into the Wolverines his freshman year and emerging as the top scorer before his sophomore season, he quickly became part of the scenery because of shooting struggles, confidence issues and Burke’s emergence as a first-year sensation. With the arrival of this year’s highly touted recruiting class, Hardaway figured to fade even further into the background.
But with 25 points and 10 rebounds — his fourth double-double of his career — in a 100-62 win over Slippery Rock Friday, Hardaway demanded respect.
“There were some rough days last year,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “But it was what people go through. He came out of it last year. He’s been playing this way a great deal this fall, but these last two weeks he’s been just like that.”
Hardaway drained another 3-pointer and grabbed two more rebounds to complete the double-double before his night was done. He made all but two of his field-goal attempts and went 5-for-5 from 3-point range as Michigan made a statement by putting up 100 points for the first time since 2007. Fifty-six of those points came in the second half.
“I think the dunk really is what set it off in the second half,” Burke said. “He was already having a great game before that and then once he had that dunk, it was just like, the crowd erupted. He played like we needed him to play.”
Beilein recognizes Hardaway’s tumultuous career but stressed both the importance of Hardaway to this team, and the impact he’s had on the program since he arrived in 2010 and became the team’s go-to shooter by January of that season.
“Our whole coaching staff values him very much,” Beilein said. “He’s had a huge impact on Michigan basketball in just two years. When he came in here, we were picked 11th in the Big Ten out of 11 teams and we haven’t been anywhere near the back of the Big Ten since he arrived.”
For a player whose mental game is just as crucial as his athletic abilities, having a game like Friday’s may have been the best thing to happen to Hardaway. He hit a slump early last year and that carried him down until well into the Big Ten season. This time, the good feelings could mean good feelings for the Wolverines.
“I’m not going to stop here,” Hardaway said.