Michigan’s 2011-12 season will finally be put to rest on Tuesday night, when the Big Ten Championship banner will be raised to the Crisler Center rafters. After that, the Wolverines will face their biggest challenge of the season, when they welcome North Carolina State to Ann Arbor.
The date for the banner raising was chosen, Michigan coach John Beilein said, to ensure that a full crowd will be present for the pregame festivities.
“I think when you look at the long time it took us to raise a banner, it’s a pretty good feeling and I know that having that in there and knowing that our coaching staff, those guys that were on that team, our administration, (were) all a part of that, it’s a good thing,” Beilein said.
But with a game against a talented Wolfpack squad looming, the coach admitted that he will “probably not” pay much attention to the magnitude of the ceremony.
“I will enjoy looking at it on another day, maybe, but it is a great thing,” he said. “We work really hard and long for that, and you can have great teams — I mean, you can win national championships — and not put that banner up, so that’s one we’re always going to strive for.”
In a typical year, an NIT Season Tip-Off championship would be the highlight of any team’s non-conference slate, but with a weaker-than-normal field in New York, combined with N.C. State’s preseason No. 6 ranking, this game has long been circled as the measuring stick for No. 3 Michigan (5-0) heading into Big Ten play.
While the Wolverines shined in the Big Apple, the 18th-ranked Wolfpack (4-1) had a rough Thanksgiving week, spoiling what could’ve been a matchup of two top-5 teams at Crisler Center. Last Sunday, N.C. State was blown out by Oklahoma State in the finals of the Puerto Rico Tipoff, before struggling defensively against a middling UNC-Ashville team at home in an 82-80 win on Friday. Monday, the team announced that forward Thomas de Thaey, a role player averaging five points per game, had left the team.
Tuesday will be the first true road test for the Wolfpack’s talented crop of freshmen, including team scoring leader T.J. Warren (14.8 points per game), who was a teammate of Michigan freshman forward Mitch McGary’s at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire last year, and Rodney Purvis, No. 18 in Scout.com’s recruiting rankings. N.C. State and its explosive offense, which averages more than 84 points per game, relies on a balanced attack — six players, including Purvis and projected NBA lottery pick C.J. Leslie, average double figures.
Meanwhile, the Wolverines are firing on all cylinders after wins over Pittsburgh and Kansas State at Madison Square Garden last week. Rebounding has been a weakness since Beilein arrived at Michigan, but after a combined 79-51 rebounding advantage over the two games, many of the questions surrounding the Wolverines’ post game have been put to rest.
“We proved we could rebound with two rebounding teams,” Beilein said. “We weren’t playing against spread offenses with four perimeter guys, we were playing against, basically both teams had two guys on the block that were there to do a lot of things — one of them rebound. When you outrebound Pitt, when you outrebound Kansas State, that showed us that with effort, we can continue to do that.”
Rebounding wasn’t the only thing Beilein came away pleased with. The sixth-year coach pointed to four factors for Michigan’s success: offensive efficiency (it leads the Big Ten, scoring more than a point per possession), limiting turnovers (five per game), efficient shooting (44.1 percent from 3-point range and 53.5 percent from the field), and strong offensive rebounding (10 per game).
The biggest storyline from New York was Hardaway’s play. He scored 16 and 23 points in the two games, but which was quickly overshadowed when he took a knee to the head in the closing minutes of Friday’s game. But the junior passed his concussion tests and Beilein said he went “all out” in Sunday’s practice.
The Wolverines will look to reverse their fortunes in ACC-Big Ten Challenges. Despite the Big Ten capturing last year’s crown, Michigan looked sluggish in a 70-58 loss at Virginia last year and is 1-4 under Beilein. But none of his teams have garnered a ranking as high as this year’s team, though that’s not something Beilein, or his team, are looking at.
“To do it in November, it’s probably meaningless,” Beilein said. “Any of these rankings right now are so premature that why even pay attention to them. I mean, I realize it sells — people want to be able to talk about it. It’s great buzz, I get all that.
“We don’t talk about it at all. I know it’s coach speak, but it’s the truth.”
Added freshman guard Nik Stauskas: “At the end of the day, it’s just a number that’s being placed on us. Obviously, we’re a bigger target now I guess for some teams, but at the end of the day, as long as we play our game and we play how we know how to play, I think none of that really matters.”