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SportsMonday Column: What do you think of Michigan now?

Paul Sherman/Daily
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By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published January 26, 2014

Two dramas played out Saturday night, both varying degrees of enthralling. There was the game, of course, a meeting between the Big Ten’s best, Michigan and Michigan State. Then there was the performance of the Michigan men’s basketball team’s sideline, which, as time wound down, boiled into an excited mess each time play stopped.

The two routines were wonderfully mismatched, as if the team was under a trance, each whistle snapping the Wolverines from peace to rage, coolness to madness, poetry to absurdity, until, after approximately forever, the final two minutes of play ended, at which point all that gave way to rapture.

Disclaimer: The 80-75 Michigan victory came over a significantly hobbled Michigan State team. But this was a deeply satisfying victory for the Wolverines, the capstone to a deeply impressive three-game stretch, and about as fun as regular-season college basketball gets. Teams are supposed to get a chance to breathe during timeouts. But Michigan was so wound up it looked more comfortable on the floor.

The fervor began with 4:01 remaining in the game. John Beilein had said on Friday that he just wanted his players to keep it close, then maybe they’d have a chance to steal the game late. Well, now it was close, and they had a chance to steal the game late, and Beilein was yelling like a maniac. Nik Stauskas had to hold his coach back to prevent a technical, first with an arm on Beilein’s shoulder, then with his palm in Beilein’s chest. The assistant coaches hurried to calm him down. On the bench, the injured Mitch McGary rubbed his eyes and looked as if he might yawn.

Whistle, timeout over. Glenn Robinson III sank two free throws to tie the game, 60-60.

At the next timeout, it was Stauskas’s turn to fume. A moment ago, he had attempted a layup and appeared to get fouled. The officials called it clean. Jordan Morgan and McGary and assistant coach LaVall Jordan calmed Stauskas down with an impromptu group therapy session.

Whistle. Two possessions later, Stauskas splashed a 3-pointer on a behind-the-back toss from Caris LeVert to break the tie. It was the decisive basket.

The Spartans extended the game with a spate of fouls, but Michigan didn’t blink. The Wolverines made 10 foul shots in a row, and 14 of 16 overall.

Each stoppage, the team returned to the sideline, which had begun to compose itself, but Spike Albrecht still grew animated talking over the dry erase board with Beilein. On a different board, on the outside of the team huddle, McGary scribbled something down. He raised his hand to offer his thoughts, written in black ink:

WIN THE GAME!

***

Michigan won the game. For the Wolverines in 2014, all the worry, all the anxiety, all the questions have been on the sidelines.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone anymore. Beilein has always shown an ability to adapt. His teams are always among the Big Ten’s most-improved.

And look at what he’s done it with. LeVert has gone from a lanky, braces-wearing, deer-in-the-headlights freshman to a lanky, braces-wearing sophomore capable of putting up 17 points and eight rebounds against Michigan State. Stauskas, the fifth-best player in the starting lineup by the end of last year, would probably be the Big Ten Player of the Year if the season ended today. Albrecht, the Justin Bieber lookalike (who has just four inches on the 5-foot-7 pop star), always seems to be at the right place at the right time and has just one turnover in Big Ten play.

Beilein’s best coaching gift may be his eye for undervalued talent and his trust in that talent. When the players start to understand what Beilein saw in them in the first place, that’s when the Wolverines become dangerous.

Take Derrick Walton Jr., the freshman point guard. Beilein was under pressure to replace him with Albrecht in the starting lineup, but Beilein stayed the course.

So it was fitting that the dagger came from Walton. With 2:29 remaining, he slashed to the basket on a fast break, drew a foul and flicked up a graceful spinning finger roll. It stayed there right above the net for a moment, bouncing off the front rim, rolling around to the back, ricocheting once more between the front and back…

If Michigan could hold on, it would mean three straight wins against top-10 teams. This was a March-like slate of games, if slightly out of order. Northwestern, Nebraska and Penn State compare well to low seeds in the opening rounds. Minnesota was the Sweet 16 and Iowa the Elite Eight. Wisconsin and Michigan State on the road? Final Four caliber. There had been anxiety in the Michigan fan base after McGary’s injury, but on the court, Michigan had already started its second act.

The ball dropped in.

The sideline erupted.

Helfand can be reached at zhelfand@umich.edu and on Twitter @zhelfand.