CHICAGO — Luke Wilson’s family traveled to see Michigan play in the Big Ten Tournament. But the walk-on sophomore guard didn’t expect them to actually see him on the court.
Yet, here he was, with 1:43 left in the Wolverines’ semifinal game against Minnesota, subbing in with his team up 28.
Getting freshmen, little-used bench players and walk-ons playing time is something you’d expect to see in December, not March. But here was Michigan, giving the kids a whirl two games in a row. Not just in March, but in a tournament with high stakes, under the bright lights of the United Center with 18,468 looking on.
On Friday, the Wolverines beat Iowa, 74-53. On Saturday, they beat the Golden Gophers, 76-49. In both, the starters came out with a few minutes remaining, leaving the bench to ice the victory.
“I was just happy that people took care of business,” Wilson said. “So that (we) could get some minutes and have some fun.”
Michigan’s business was all but taken care of at halftime, when it was already up by 19, but John Beilein at first gave his rotation guys a go in the second half. Sophomore forward Isaiah Livers hit three 3-pointers in a span of four minutes — two on consecutive possessions. Then sophomore guard Eli Brooks hit two consecutive layups, the second of which resulted in an and-one. The Wolverines were up 34 with six minutes left and that’s when Beilein brought in his deeper bench guys. With two minutes left, the walk-ons got their shot.
“It’s good for them to be able to do that,” Beilein said. “First of all for no injuries and second of all, (the starters) can just get off their feet and get ready. Three games in three days is hard.”
Sunday, Michigan will play the third of those three games — against Michigan State, the only Big Ten team the Wolverines have yet to beat. The Spartans will be a tough out no matter what, but having the last guys on the bench finish out the first two games could provide Michigan a hidden advantage.
The last two games have come with almost none of the anxiety that tournament games usually provide, and all of the fun.
Nine bench players got in against Minnesota and nine against Iowa. Outside of Livers and Brooks, they combined for two points across the two nights. But it didn’t matter. Every time one of them put up a shot, the whole bench cheered. The team’s chemistry only made everyone more confident.
“A lot of us have been waiting for our chance or waiting for next year or trying to learn as much as we can,” said freshman guard Adrien Nunez. “So I’m just happy that we were even able to get out there and if you look at the bench, all the starters are super happy for us, every time we take a shot.”
Added sophomore forward CJ Baird: “It’s hard to describe because I came into college not really thinking I was going to play basketball anyway, and it was the Big Ten Tournament, being a part of this … and it’s awesome. All the guys on the bench and the starters are all rooting for me too and just feeling that love and support all at once makes you really want to keep going.”
Leading up to the game, Wilson played Golden Gopher guard Amir Coffey — a fellow left-hander — on the scout team. He thought his contributions would end there.
Instead, the Wolverines ran Minnesota off the court. Wilson got into the game with his family looking on. The starters got some rest and the reserves got to play. And everybody had the time of their lives.
When asked what the most fun part of the weekend has been so far, freshman forward Colin Castleton — who scored zero points but held his own defensively as Michigan’s backup center — kept it simple.
“Just winning. Overall, winning.”