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Michigan continues to 'Protect Crisler,' on track for historic home performance

Todd Needle/Daily
Members of the Michigan football team take in Michigan’s victory over Indiana at Crisler Center earlier this season. Buy this photo

By Ben Estes, Daily Sports Editor
Published February 15, 2012

You can talk about Zack Novak all you want, but ex-NFL defensive end Eric Ogbogu is the unofficial heart and soul of the No. 17 Michigan basketball team. The Wolverines don’t realize this, and Ogbogu himself certainly doesn’t. In fact, it’s likely nobody recognizes Ogbogu’s underrated contribution to the program.

The ultra-muscular former benchwarmer became a phenomenon when Under Armour hired Ogbogu to be its spokesman and to star in its commercials.

Everyone remembers those spots from several years back. The Under Armour-clad Ogbogu rallied his teammates before giving one final admonition: “WE MUST PROTECT THIS HOUSE!”

And though Michigan coach John Beilein and his team probably didn’t look to those commercials as inspiration, they’ve definitely taken the message to heart. The Wolverines have been determined to protect home court this season. Refusing to lose at the Crisler Center has been a theme for the group “from day one,” as redshirt sophomore forward Jordan Morgan put it.

“We practice all the time on this court,” said junior guard Matt Vogrich. “It’s just a motto of ours, ‘Protect Crisler.’ And we’ve been trying to do that all year.”

It’s nothing new, really — keeping opponents from besting you on your own floor is a goal for all teams. But the Wolverines have been particularly adept at it, a fact evident from their perfect 14-0 record at the Crisler Center.

That success extends into last year, too. Michigan has won 15 straight home games, and that mark would be 19 games if it weren’t for the last-second, heartbreaking 3-pointer courtesy of Josh Gasser and Wisconsin on Feb. 23 of last season. Before that, the Wolverines hadn’t lost at Crisler since Jan. 15 against Minnesota.

Meanwhile, Michigan has had much less success in true road games. The team has turned it around with wins at Nebraska and at Purdue in two of its past four trips, but before topping the Boilermakers, the most common criticism of the Wolverines was their inability to win in unfriendly confines.

They have had success in neutral sites, winning two of three games at the Maui Invitational and topping Oakland at the Palace of Auburn Hills, but trying to win in a hostile environment has proven much more difficult. Michigan remains just 2-4 in conference play on the road, with three road tilts remaining.

“I think the Big Ten just has a lot of really good teams with a lot of really good arenas, and it’s tough to go and take a road win from somebody,” Morgan said. “Everybody has more energy at home and they get a lot of momentum at home, so (wins are) tough to come by.”

But maybe the narrative should be flipped — perhaps the story shouldn’t be how mediocre the Wolverines play on the road, but how well they perform at home. Other than a hard-fought, one-point win over then-No. 9 Michigan State and an overtime victory against Northwestern, Michigan hasn’t really come close to falling at Crisler.

It’s possible that no team this season has made Wisconsin look worse than when the Wolverines blew out the then-18th-ranked Badgers by 18 points in January. Indiana and Illinois did come back to make a game out of it when those teams traveled to Ann Arbor, but the Wolverines never really relinquished control in either affair.

In comparison to the other games against the Hoosiers and Spartans, the home-road split is even more evident. Michigan looked markedly worse against those two when playing in Bloomington and East Lansing.

“We like playing here,” Vogrich said. “Shots fall at Crisler. … We think we’re good enough not to lose here.”

The success could be attributed to the hostile atmosphere for opposing teams. Michigan has already sold out six games this season — four more than a year ago — and the primetime clash against No. 6 Ohio State this Saturday and senior night against Purdue a week later are fair bets to sell out, too.

That would make eight sellouts for the season, twice as many as Beilein has had in any season in his tenure in Ann Arbor and just two less than he’s had here total.

Whatever the reason, should the Wolverines win their final two games at the Crisler Center, they’d enter the record books as just the third team in program history to finish undefeated at home and the fourth to go undefeated in Big Ten play at home.

And the team would have an argument for the best home performance in Michigan history, since its 16 wins would top the previous best of 14, set in 1977 (the last time the Wolverines completed an undefeated home slate). Of course, Michigan needs to beat the Buckeyes before that can become reality.