Long road leads to another banner for Michigan

Sunday, March 4, 2018 - 9:37pm

The Michigan men's basketball team won a second consecutive Big Ten Tournament Championship.

The Michigan men's basketball team won a second consecutive Big Ten Tournament Championship. Buy this photo
Katelyn Mulcahy/Daily

Big Ten Champion hats perched on their heads, music blaring, a group of Michigan players trot off the confetti-littered podium, toward the locker room, singing “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z at the top of their lungs.

Water bottles fly through the visitors’ locker room — dousing the Michigan players, coaches and staff — as Michigan coach John Beilein turns his congratulatory speech into a team-wide dance circle.

“Surreal,” said senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman said to describe the scene after Michigan had capped off its second consecutive Big Ten title. The senior guard — once a two-star recruit — earned a spot on the all-tournament team.

It was all real, of course. The trophy. Four wins in four days. Again. The confetti falling from the roof. The maturation of a team once an afterthought, rapidly evolving into a juggernaut.

A swarm of reporters rush to the locker room to greet sophomore Jon Teske — “Jon Sleep,” Abdur-Rahkman calls him — the largest man in the room who so rarely garners the attention his stature would imply. Teske’s role, perhaps, has been the most steady of any player all season — the defensive-centric, offensively-limited backup center, who plays 12 minutes a game, stifles shots at the rim, and keeps himself quiet on offense. Tell that to Isaac Haas, the 7-foot-2 center for Purdue who Teske turned into a poster and then let Haas know, en route to 14 points in the biggest game of Teske’s life. 

This championship was because of him.

Walk out into the hallway and find Beilein with a reflective tone.

“Duncan Robinson, for example,” Beilein says, amid a question of team growth.

“Growth” is a peculiar way to describe a fifth-year senior who says he “(doesn’t) have the young legs I once did,” he said.

In recent weeks and months, Robinson has been crystal clear about the need to play with urgency. These are his last few games of organized basketball until, well, maybe ever. 

He’s just a couple months removed from being benched for a freshman amid a prolongued shooting funk. If the 42-percent career 3-point shooter wasn’t going to make threes, what was he going to do?

“I just want to help. As a guy who’s been through it, I want to help us win,” he says after playing 32 key minutes in the tournament final, in which he limited Purdue forward Vincent Edward to just four points. For a fifth-year senior who spent much of his career as the butt of opposing scouting reports, “growth” is underestimating his defensive transformation. 

As his 3-point stroke has resurfaced, his defensive revelation is a major reason for the team’s new defensive identity.

This championship was because of him.

But no one gets to claim ownership of the 6th-ranked defense, by adjusted defensive efficiency in KenPom.com, more than Luke Yaklich.

The assistant coach stands in the middle of the room, unable to drop a gaping smile. He shakes each reporter’s hand, eagerly and earnestly engaging with each question, not skipping a beat as he high fives Charles Matthews who chooses to take a lap around the room in his towel. Freshman Ibi Watson shakes hands with Yaklich, as Yaklich turns back to him and says, “I love you, dawg.”

After he was hired from Illinois State, Yaklich met with Beilein, expecting a traditional welcome. Instead he got a question he never expected.

‘What do you think we need to do better?’

Yaklich couldn’t believe that the 11-time NCAA tournament head coach was asking him. “I need to learn how to teach defense better,” Yaklich recalls Beilein saying.

This championship was because of him.

It’s impossible, though, to mention the defense — one that held Purdue, a team that averaged 82 points per game, to just 66 points in the final — without talking about its leader.

The first drill of practice in July, Yaklich told the team they would be doing slides — dives on the floor. Instead of complaining, Simpson marched right up to the front and said, “I’ve got you, Coach Luke.”

“He backed up every bit of talk that he told me the first couple weeks on the job,” Yaklich said. “He backed it up with effort every single day.”

Simpson shut down each of his four opponents in this weekend’s Big Ten Tournament, as the four opposing point guards shot 11-for-36.

This championship was because of him.

But it wasn’t just about the leaders. For a guy like Jordan Poole, who came to Michigan with more than enough swag to go around, the evolution to a championship team supercedes him. Poole, who has been asked to make winning plays, not just his personal highlights, notched two steals in the title game, forced two other turnovers and dove into the stands to save a ball destined to go out of bounds.

“When I look at stuff like this, it’s more than myself,” Poole said. “It’s definitely for the guys around me. For guys who put in so much work, when you work so hard. Guys like (Abdur-Rahkman), who’s been here for four years, and Duncan who’s been here for four years.”

This championship is because of him.

Perhaps most embodying an individual sacrifice for the greater good of the team, fifth-year senior guard Jaaron Simmons stands by his locker, removing his jersey as the whole scene unfolds. Simmons, who transferred from Ohio University this past offseason as the presumed starting point guard, didn’t start all season. He averaged just 1.6 points per game. Less than a year ago, Simmons’ name was in the NBA draft pool. None of that mattered to him. This was his first conference title. He was just excited to earn an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament, an adventure he’s never experienced.

“I can’t really explain it,” Simmons said. “I’m happy as hell.”

This championship is because of him.

Oh, and Moritz Wagner. The German star who nearly turned his NCAA Tournament showcase a season ago into an NBA contract. Instead, he came back to school to be the face of this team, to dazzle some more crowds with his array of skills, then ride off into the NBA sunset once and for all.

But it didn’t start as planned.

“I thought Moe, in that first semester was really pressing. Trying to do too much. Finally when we came to this second semester, he got through that injury, I think he understood really how we have to do things, and really became a better defender.”

Wagner rode a team-high 17 points in the final to snag the Most Outstanding Player award.

This championship is because of him.

Then there’s Beilein, the man at the top pulling every string, getting the most out of every player. Purdue coach Matt Painter told reporters after the game, “You learn something every time you play them.”

Yet one of the most decorated coaches in college basketball had the audacity to loosen the reins and figure out why his team had never finished higher than 37th in adjusted defensive efficiency. 

This championship was because of him. 

And everyone else.

Derrick Walton carried last year’s team to glory, and that’s all well and good. But this is a team that found a new hero each night. A team that played the first part of the season with a revolving door at point guard. A team that admitted it wasn’t as offensively gifted as many of Beilein’s best and didn’t make that a barrier.

Instead it became one of the best defensive teams in the country. A team that needed serious contributions from two transfers after unexpectedly losing one of its best to the draft and two others to graduation. A team that begged for big-time contributions from unripe freshmen, and then got above and beyond. A team that was told all year it wasn’t tough, and didn’t say otherwise. It showed otherwise.

As he stood on the podium at midcourt, Beilein summoned his best Bo Schembechler impression to consider what made this team a champion.

“A team, a team, a team.”