CHICAGO — On the road in the Big Ten, Ignas Brazdeikis has already become a villain.
Take what happened in College Park two weeks ago. Maryland fans taunted his appearance, quite vocally so. The freshman forward responded with 21 points in a 69-62 Michigan win, then blew kisses into the crowd.
It’s easy to look at moments like that and form a picture of Brazdeikis as a cocky youngster or a swaggering, smack-talking scorer. It’s an intriguing image. It also ignores just how far Brazdeikis has come, and how he’s put that progression on display this weekend.
In the Wolverines’ 59-57 win over Minnesota on Jan. 22, Brazdeikis scored 18 points on only 4-for-18 shooting. The aggressiveness that had defined his game was there in full force, but nothing else was. On defense, Brazdeikis struggled to compete down low, as Jordan Murphy and Eric Curry bowled their way to eight combined offensive rebounds.
So when Michigan drew the Golden Gophers again in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament, it appeared to be a mismatch. In two prior games against the Wolverines, Murphy, an All-Big Ten senior, scored 33 points and gobbled up 26 rebounds, mostly by using all of his 255 pounds.
“He’s one of the best players in the league for sure,” Brazdeikis said. “I like to match up with him, and I get excited for those kind of matchups.”
And, on the biggest stage of Brazdeikis’ young career, he flipped the script, dropping a cool 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting and rejecting Murphy twice. Murphy grabbed only one offensive rebound and six total. His team lost 76-49, a 27-point margin.
Season-long development has allowed Brazdeikis to balance this side of his game. For a freshman like Brazdeikis, it’s class on the fly, learning how to survive as physical teams gameplan to stop you.
“With Minnesota you’re always gonna be in a physical grind,” said assistant coach Saddi Washington. “ … I think once you experience that for the first time, the next time you go up against it, it’s not as much of a shock to your system.”
Brazdeikis may be tough as nails, but in the past, that alone wasn’t able to make up for a 40-pound disadvantage against Murphy. Michigan coach John Beilein said that had this game occured in November, Brazdeikis would have gotten in foul trouble as soon as the game started. Saturday, Brazdeikis wasn’t whistled once.
Defensively, Murphy had no better luck, as Brazdeikis constantly got a step to the rim, where he was able to finish efficiently.
“He’s learned that yes, I can front a big guy,” Beilein said. “He’s learned that it’s tough guarding a big guy, but it’s tough for that guy to guard me, too.”
This is where the Ignas Brazdeikis we’re all familiar with comes in.
The kid from Ontario that lives for the big shot, the big matchup, the big moment. He hasn’t gone anywhere.
“Iggy’s Iggy,” said sophomore guard Luke Wilson. “He loves these moments. He’s not one to really get in his own way, get into his own head. He’s gonna go out there, and he has a next-shot mentality, not caring what anybody thinks about him.”
Added Washington: “The kid is fearless, and he’s been that way since day one. That’s part of what makes him go.”
On Friday night, Brazdeikis dropped 15 points in a romp over Iowa in a performance replete with screaming flexes, money celebrations, and-ones and 3-pointers alike. Saturday, his complete performance helped put the Wolverines within one win of a Big Ten Tournament title.
Here, playing in a neutral venue in front of supporting and opposing fans alike, he’s not merely a villain. Just a talented freshman who’s come a long way, soaking in the moment, grinning and raising up one more money celebration to a cluster of Michigan fans as he walks off the court.