Rest or rust? After tournament championship, Michigan approaches uncommon off week
So now what?
After claiming the Big Ten Tournament Championship for a second year in a row, the Michigan men’s basketball team is riding high. It vaulted to No. 7 in the AP poll released on Monday, and continues to climb up bracket projections, now seemingly locked into a top-four seed — bracketmatrix.com, a website that compiles a host of predictions, has the Wolverines as the final No. 3 seed.
Michigan has won nine games in a row, and after beating Nebraska in the quarterfinal and Purdue in the final, has beaten all of the other 13 Big Ten teams, the only team in the conference to accomplish that feat this season. Suddenly, a pesky, middling Big Ten team has become one of the hottest in the country, and a bonafide contender.
But after winning four games in four days, the red-hot Wolverines will go at least 10 days before playing next.
Thanks to a condensed schedule created to accommodate Madison Square Garden as the venue for last week’s tournament, Michigan won’t find out who it’s playing or where it’s going for another five days, raising the interminable question of rest versus rust.
After a dizzying week, Michigan coach John Beilein made his case for rest.
“I’ve been here before with both Canisius and Richmond,” Beilein said. “You’ve got to pace yourself, and you’ve got to embrace it, say, ‘You know what, we’ve got time to get better now.’ We’re going to get better.
“I think it’ll be a nice week where I’m not — we just prepared for five teams in four days. I’m looking forward (to the fact) we can’t prepare for the next opponent, we can just focus on ourselves the next week.”
Not only does Beilein have experience with the prolonged time off, he actually has success.
In 1998, Beilein’s 14th-seeded Richmond team upset the No. 3 seeded South Carolina coming off a similar 11-day layoff.
Beilein noted that he won’t practice each day, but would likely practice a couple times with an intra-squad scrimmage slated for Sunday afternoon prior to the announcement of the NCAA Tournament field.
When asked what his team can improve upon before the start of the Tournament, Beilein eagerly responded, “Oh, man,” before naming off a laundry list of areas for improvment. Free-throw shooting, boxing out and on-ball defense all made the cut before he forced himself to slow down and acknowledge the need to take things easy.
But the perils of rust loom large for a team now gelling as one of the nation’s best.
There was no feeling of disappointment in the Michigan locker room about getting the extra week — or at least no outward admission of such. If anything, the attitude was a workmanlike ambivalence.
“I think we are just going to focus on — first of all, we’re going to enjoy this a couple days and to get some rest,” said junior center Moritz Wagner, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. “Then we’re going to focus on what’s next. Whether that’s an advantage or disadvantage, doesn’t really matter.”
Added Robinson: “We’re just looking at it as, it is what it is. It’ll be nice to get some rest — don’t have the young legs like I once did, being a fifth-year senior. It’ll be nice to get off my feet for it.”
Senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman said he likes to play Xbox during his down time, specifically Fortnite and Call of Duty. Robinson remarked that each player would maximize the extra week to watch more film, get an extra weight lift in or simply catch up on rest.
But it’s only human nature to think the streaking Wolverines would just want to keep playing basketball.
On Sunday, the rest of the conference tournaments will come to a close and the bracket will be released. Beilein will begin his game preparation, and the most chaotic sporting event in the country will officially begin.
And no matter what happens in the next month, no matter what seed Michigan will end with, no matter what — if anything — comes of this uncommon week off, the Wolverines will still hang a banner in Crisler Center come next season.
Careful not to fret too much about the extra time, Beilein made one thing clear about the schedule after he celebrated his second straight Big Ten Tournament title.
“It was worth it.”