On March 4, 2021, the final seconds ticked off the clock as the Michigan men’s basketball team swarmed together at center court following a win over Michigan State. With the opening notes of Drake’s “Trophies” blaring over the PA system, a mass exodus of Wolverine players, coaches and managers alike ran out from the sidelines and began dancing, jumping and hugging as they celebrated a Big Ten regular season title on their home floor.
It was a heady mixture of relief, pride and triumph, all exactly seven years to the day after their last regular-season conference title.
The 2013-14 season didn’t always look like one destined to end in a Big Ten regular season title. Following the departures of star guards Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to the NBA Draft, Michigan limped into conference play with a 6-4 record and without a bona fide closer. The situation looked even tougher when then-sophomore forward Mitch McGary, a projected lottery pick, suffered a season-ending back injury.
“It was one of those things where we looked at each other and we were like, ‘Look, he’s not coming back anytime soon. There’s no one coming in to save the day for us. This is all we have,’ ” then-sophomore guard Nik Stauskas told the Daily. “I think it was that kind of realization where we said, ‘We’ve gotta do our part in stepping up and helping this team win if we wanna turn this season around.’ ”
But in the furnace of conference play, the Wolverines started to forge an identity. After picking up four games against middling foes, Michigan had to run its toughest gauntlet of the year: playing top-10 opponents Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State all in the same week. Similarly to this season, there was no margin of error against any Big Ten opponent.
“That’s what you get with Big Ten basketball,” then-sophomore guard Spike Albrecht told the Daily. “There’s no nights off no matter who you’re playing. Every time you go on the road, you know it’s gonna be a challenge.”
Added Stauskas: “We knew coming into Big Ten season, ‘This is who we have, and we have to turn it around.’ ”
Coming into a road game against Wisconsin in Madison on Jan. 18 that year, the Wolverines were heavy underdogs against the top-ranked team in the Big Ten. With the game on the line, Michigan coach John Beilein tried to draw a play up with his team clinging to a one-point edge with a minute left. After passing up an open shot prior to the timeout, Beilein told Stauskas he didn’t think he was ready to be the team’s go-to man in the clutch. The Wolverines’ search for a closer would remain open.
Stasukas wasn’t having it.
“I think he knew saying that would kinda light the fire underneath me, that made me furious,” Stauskas said. “I was like ‘No, coach. I got this. Run it back.’ So we came back out on the floor and ran the same play, and that’s the play where I hit that stepback. And that’s why when I was walking back to the bench, the camera zooms in on me and you can see me saying, ‘I want this,’ and it was just me telling him, ‘I’m not scared of the moment.’ ”
Carrying the momentum from the win over the Badgers, Michigan went on a tear. With wins over the Hawkeyes and Spartans, the Wolverines launched into the top 10 of that week’s AP Poll. With an official closer and a newfound level of confidence, the Wolverines became the team to beat in the Big Ten.
“As a team, we just had this confidence about us like, ‘No one in the Big Ten can mess with us,’ ” Stauskas said.
While Stauskas was Michigan’s unquestioned star, the Wolverines were aided in large part by the play of two freshmen, guard Derrick Walton Jr. and forward Zak Irvin. The two were irreplaceable parts of the 2014 squad who played with veteran poise and made a plethora of clutch shots and big plays in their debut campaigns.
“Both of them, they weren’t scared of the moment,” Stauskas said. “They always wanted more.”
On March 4, Michigan traveled to Champaign. While Illinois was a middling team in that year’s Big Ten, the Wolverines refused to look past them. This wasn’t just another conference game: this was a chance to clinch a Big Ten regular season title.
“I think we knew with the way we were playing that year we were going to win that game, but (Beilein) didn’t want us to take them lightly,” Stauskas said. “And the amount of focus and concentration that coach Beilein had, he was not gonna let us lose.”
Sure enough, the Wolverines blazed their way to a dominant win, clinching the Big Ten regular season title with an 84-53 victory. While the celebration was sweet, it was even sweeter when the team celebrated its title at Crisler Center following a win over Indiana later that week.
“That moment of accomplishment on your own court, to be the sole champion,” Beilein said. “Just think about how many times that’s happened. That hasn’t happened a lot. We won two of them and one of them was a three-way tie.”
And seven years later, the Wolverines added another Big Ten regular season title banner to the Crisler Center rafters as Beilein watched from the stands.
“It does mean a lot to win the regular season championship, because it means you withstood the test of time,” Beilein said. “Only the National Championship is a better gage for how good you are.”
While this year’s Michigan team has not finished writing its narrative, the 2014 team can see pieces of themselves in what they have accomplished to this point. Besides following suit by winning a regular season championship, the way the Wolverines of today play together reminds its former players of their own days on the court.
“The biggest parallel is that they look like they genuinely love playing together and playing for one another,” Albrecht said. “I think that’s part of the reason we were so successful. We were a really close-knit group, all really good friends, had fun going out on the court.
“Nobody cared who was scoring, making all the plays. At the end of the day we just wanted to win. And I think that’s something that this group does as well.”
This fall, Michigan will raise another Big Ten regular season banner to stand beside 2014’s. Whenever Stauskas returns to Ann Arbor, he reminds himself that the banner bearing his squad’s name is a sign that they left their mark. Now that this year’s squad has accomplished the same feat, he hopes it feels it, too.
“You’re a part of history,” Stauskas said. “You’ve left your mark on the school, and it’s a good feeling knowing whatever new players are stepping into that arena and are a part of that program, they’re gonna look up and see that part of history.”
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