Seven of Max Bielfeldt’s teammates outscored him Tuesday night, and six spent more time on the floor. But when Indiana coach Tom Crean took the podium to address reporters after a beatdown far more thorough than the 80-67 score suggested, Bielfeldt was the first player he credited.
“I think, in the first half, Max had a plus-25 in the plus-minus,” Crean said, later mentioning Bielfeldt among a list of seniors who have provided his team, which has started the season 19-4, with “excellent leadership.”
In layman’s terms: In the 18 minutes Bielfeldt played, his Hoosiers outscored the Michigan men’s basketball team by 25.
The performance, however, was about far more than simple numbers. It was a homecoming for Bielfeldt, one that came on the heels of a controversial departure that has recently seen its nastier side bubble back toward the surface.
A senior with a year of eligibility remaining, Bielfeldt spent 2014-15 as a Wolverine with his status for the following season up in the air. He played his best basketball in the final stretch of a decidedly disappointing season, proving himself a capable post presence on a team starved for experienced big men.
None of it mattered. When the dust settled on a chaotic end to recruiting season, Michigan coach John Beilein had a scholarship available, yet, when push came to shove, Bielfeldt found himself in search of another program to call home.
A column Tuesday in the Indianapolis Star lambasted Beilein for the way he handled the situation. Beilein said Monday he didn’t regret the decision — it was one made with the future, not the past, in mind. Intra-conference transfers shouldn’t be allowed, Beilein said Monday on his weekly radio show, but what’s done is done.
Bielfeldt seems to have moved on quickly, averaging 8.1 points and 4.6 rebounds with the Hoosiers. He gave Michigan fans a taste, however small, of what he could have given their team this year, pulling down a game-high seven rebounds and helping to charge a 28-0 run that left the Wolverines flailing.
“Walking down here in the visitor’s locker room is weird,” Bielfeldt said. ”I got out there, and (seeing) all the guys got my adrenaline pumping. It was definitely a unique experience, but I tried to calm down a little bit before the game, you know, go back to myself. Because I’m not the crazy, energetic guy out there all the time. I was trying to find myself.”
The Michigan fans who watched Bielfeldt jog out of the opposite tunnel for four years made sure Bielfeldt’s welcome was a warm one. The student section, packed to the gills a full hour before tipoff, gave Bielfeldt a rousing ovation as he entered.
Bielfeldt was all business. He acknowledged the students with a smile and a wave, said his hellos to his former teammates and trotted across the halfcourt line to warm up with the team wearing scarlet — a color conspicuously absent from his wardrobe throughout his four years in Ann Arbor.
“I’d like to, on behalf of Indiana basketball, thank the crowd for the way that they responded to him,” Crean said. “That says a lot about the success they’ve had at Michigan. I think that says a lot about the level of respect that they have for their players.”
The crowd at Crisler Center gave Bielfeldt an even lustier cheer when he checked into the game early in the first half, well before the wheels fell off in Michigan’s third Big Ten loss this season. They didn’t cheer for much longer, for Bielfeldt or for the Wolverines, who proved incapable of standing their ground as Indiana’s lead ballooned to 27.
The Hoosiers were well prepared for Michigan’s baseline cuts, its ball-screen action and the rest of its game plan. Among the potential concerns for Beilein was Bielfeldt’s ability to help game-plan against a system he played in for four years. The fear proved legitimate — to an extent.
“I was adding bits and pieces, you know, not a whole lot,” Bielfeldt said. “The only thing out there is that I recognize a backdoor player, and I recognize that when they get into an action, some places, you (can) kind of disturb the flow. I tried to help where I could, but it wasn’t extreme. It was what you’d expect.”
Also expected: A pregame visit to Zingerman’s Delicatessen, where Bielfeldt ate a sandwich for lunch and took another to go.
Appearing untroubled that a fifth year in Tree Town simply wasn’t in the stars, Bielfeldt had no trouble making himself feel at home. He left with a win, a grin and even a sense of security in his choice for a pregame meal, despite a bit of self-doubt.
“Frita Batidos, too,” he said, asked about his Ann Arbor culinary go-to. “Not before a game, though.”