CHICAGO — As Michigan State stormed past Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament semi-finals, Zavier Simpson gathered his teammates together a few dozen yards away in Michigan’s locker room.
Knowing the Wolverines’ focus could have easily drifted toward a potential rematch with the Spartans in the championship game, the junior point guard emphasized the need to build championship habits.
“If you build championship habits the day before the championship game,” said sophomore forward CJ Baird, relaying Simpson’s message, “then you won’t have to build that. You already have it there.”
Saturday afternoon against 7th-seeded Minnesota, 3rd-seeded Michigan (28-5 overall, 15-5 Big Ten) displayed those championship habits and then some, storming out to a 76-49 demolition of the Golden Gophers (21-13, 9-11). Just as the Big Ten regular-season title did last weekend in East Lansing, the tournament crown will come down to Michigan and Michigan State.
“Perfect scenario,” said sophomore forward Isaiah Livers. “It’s kinda how I had it perfectly planned coming into the tournament.”
Before the Wolverines’ semi-final matchup turned into an compulsory march toward the final buzzer, Minnesota provided only a momentary threat. When Gabe Kalscheur hit a turnaround jumper 9:08 into the game, the score was deadlocked at 13 — the threat of a competitive basketball game very much real.
That threat wouldn’t last long. Four minutes later, Michigan’s lead hit double digits. It would never creep under 10 again as Minnesota scored just six points over the half’s final 10:52.
The first 10 minutes featured much of the offensive stagnation that has stifled the Wolverines all season. Then, the swagger that defines their best moments returned. With 7:52 left in the first half, sophomore guard Jordan Poole buried a stepback three off the glass — part of a 10-for-26 team performance from deep. Moments later, freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis finished through traffic before Simpson scooped a crafty layup over defenders on Michigan’s next possession.
“Our defense turns into our offense,” Brazdeikis said. “That’s the main thing for us. When we’re stopping guys and we’re pushing the ball in transition, we’re all moving the ball. That’s what gets us going.”
All three were textbook examples of what each player can provide at his best. For the rest of the game, the Wolverines provided just that.
When Livers forced Minnesota into a timeout after slamming home to put Michigan up 28-13, he was met by a mob of teammates off the bench as the Wolverines’ coaching staff applauded in the background. Those same applause followed junior center Jon Teske’s pick-and-pop three with 1:12 left in the half and came again when Simpson hit a transition layup over Dupree McBrayer to give Michigan a 38-19 lead at the halftime buzzer.
“It’s fun when everybody’s clicking,” Baird said. “I think that’s the best thing about it is we were playing really well, playing together. And I think that’s the most fun thing is just watching everybody enjoy themselves. Not always too serious, everybody’s smiling and stuff.”
The second half, predictably, was much of the same. The lead hit 20 on a Simpson three at the 18:55 mark. 10 minutes later, Livers buried from deep to make it 30. Forty never came, but perhaps only because the Wolverines removed all their starters with 6:07 to play and a 74-39 lead in hand.
By that point — and likely long before — all that was on anyone’s minds was Michigan State, a chance for redemption and a shot at a third consecutive Big Ten Tournament title.
For now, the Wolverines have a Big Ten-record 10 straight tournament wins. Standing outside a celebratory Michigan locker room, John Beilein — ever reluctant to focus on accomplishments — began to dismiss that number, before pausing to make note of a record he would care about.
“It would be nice to win 11. That would really be cool.”