It was 358 days ago when videos and news of the Michigan men’s basketball team were plastered online and on ESPN chyrons.
As the Wolverines began to depart for the 2016-17 Big Ten Tournament in Washington D.C., an aborted takeoff from high winds led their plane to slide off the runway. At one point, the team considered not participating, but they decided to leave the day of their first game in what sparked an eventual conference championship and automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
For the 2017-18 season, Michigan enters the Big Ten Tournament in New York at Madison Square Garden — against the winner of Illinois vs. Iowa — with its hopes of playing in March Madness essentially being a lock. The Wolverines are ranked No. 15 in the country. They’re catching the typical pre-March, John Beilein-led fire. Despite posting a much better record than at this time last year, Michigan is hardly being discussed.
John Beilein relishes it.
“We don’t make the news,” the coach said at Tuesday’s press conference. “I sorta like being that guy. I wanna be the guy that nobody knows — that we keep winning, we’re consistent, we’re always in the hunt for a Big Ten Championship or having an NCAA (Tournament) opportunity.
“People call me Boeheim or something like that, they don’t know my name. I actually love it.”
Last season’s plane crash lionized the team as they ran through both the Big Ten and then made an improbable appearance in the Sweet Sixteen. Beilein and his team, of course, are okay with dropping last year’s commotion and are unsurprised as to why they have flown under the radar: defense.
Defense isn’t sexy, and it’s what the Wolverines — who rank 11th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency — are doing exceptionally. Michigan has surrendered an average of 61.2 points per game its past four contests. Within that span, the Hawkeyes, a potential opponent for the Wolverines on Thursday, were held to just 59 points despite being the No. 3 scoring team in the Big Ten.
“We knew that coming into the year that that’s going to be our identity. Offensively, it’s not always gonna work like that,” said junior forward Moritz Wagner, snapping his fingers. “… We’ve been consistent. Every time we’re not, we’re not playing great. The only game we played good defense and lost was Northwestern.”
For Michigan, saying “New year, new me” is a reality, not an empty New Year’s promise. It’s not being labeled “white collar” or relying on its offense like a year ago. The Wolverines are just looking to take care of business.
“We know when we get down there that we gotta lock in and play,” said freshman guard Jordan Poole. “If you get banged up a little bit or bruised a little bit, you gotta suck it up.”
A number of aspects of Beilein’s team remain consistent, though. Namely, the Wolverines continue to space the floor and hit 3-pointers at a high clip, an effort elevated by Poole, Wagner and Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year Duncan Robinson.
But the differences between this year’s squad and last year’s before the Big Ten Tournament are glaring. The same can be said for the competition — both No. 2 Michigan State and No. 8 Purdue boast more powerful lineups than the 2016-17 Boilermakers, last year’s No.1 Big Team. The Wolverines ability to capture a second-consecutive conference championship, however, is tougher but tenable. For Wagner, that sentiment is the result of his team’s firepower, not because of freak accidents.
“Let’s knock on wood.”