After Wednesday’s loss at Illinois, Fighting Illini center Maverick Morgan said something that ticked off the Michigan’s men’s basketball team.
“They’re more of white collar team, traditionally,” Morgan said. “At Illinois we’re about toughness and together, not that they’re not. But we kind of pride ourselves on defense, and that’s something we’ve worked hard on.”
The “white-collar” comment from Morgan didn’t sit well with any of the Wolverines, and they took it personally.
“The white-collar comment that was made, we didn’t take that lightly,” said senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. after Michigan’s win against Nebraska on Saturday. “So when we heard that, it was basically attacking us personally. The white-collar comment that was made by an Illinois player really ticked this team off.”
Added junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman on Friday: “It doesn’t feel good. I’ve never seen myself as a white-collar player or anything like that, so I especially don’t like that.”
After a lackluster performance against Illinois, in which Michigan’s defense allowed the Fighting Illini to shoot 64.2 percent, the Wolverines needed to respond Saturday against the Cornhuskers.
In the “white-collar” comment from Morgan, they found their spark.
Back home at Crisler Center, Michigan was aggressive attacking the rim, which was evident in the second half, when they went into the bonus with over nine and a half minutes left to play as they beat the Cornhuskers, 91-85.
“It’s motivation, certainly, for them,” said Michigan coach John Beilein after Saturday’s game. “I’ve talked about the edge. We do not have a bunch of white collar kids. We have kids that are tough, hungry and trying to get better everyday.”
Sophomore forward Moritz Wagner gave the Wolverines a big size advantage inside, and they attacked the paint early. Wagner was able to exploit the size advantage, scoring a career-high 23 points.
But by the end of the game, it was Walton and senior guard Zak Irvin who took over for Michigan. The duo attacked the basket, creating opportunities and open shots that allowed the Wolverines to stay ahead of Nebraska, despite the Cornhuskers shooting almost 60 percent in the second half.
“Tonight, we wanted to be more aggressive going to the basket and showing that we’re a group out there,” Walton said.
Now at 2-3 in the Big Ten, Michigan finds itself at a pivotal point in its schedule. With road games at No. 18 Wisconsin and Michigan State and a home matchup against Indiana, the Wolverines are hitting a tough portion of their schedule.
The win over Nebraska on Saturday afternoon wasn’t perfect. The Wolverines’ defense still gave up 85 points and 1.232 points per possession. But it was a win, and wherever Michigan can find motivation is good for a team that Beilein has said “an edge” doesn’t comes naturally to.
Come next Saturday, the Wolverines won’t have any problem finding something to get fired up about.
Michigan will take on Illinois once again in Ann Arbor, and there will be no shortage of motivation.
“We’ll have our chance to play them again,” Abdur-Rakhman said. “I don’t think it will be the same.”