On Michigan’s opening possession of the second half, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman had a bit of a mental lapse.
After sophomore forward Moritz Wagner passed the ball out to the junior guard, Abdur-Rahkman took a couple steps back, thinking the shot Wagner just rebounded hit the rim and the Wolverines were working with a fresh shot clock.
Instead, Abdur-Rahkman stood 30-plus feet away from the basket with under five seconds to shoot and both the bench and Maize Rage behind him urging him to pull the trigger.
So he did. And not one person in Crisler Center was surprised when his NBA-range three-pointer found nothing but twine.
That was the kind of night Michigan was having. The Wolverines shot 63 percent from the field, outrebounded Indiana 23-20 and committed just six turnovers.
They could do no wrong.
Those numbers strongly suggest that Michigan has returned to the team we saw in New York — the team that left Madison Square Garden considered not only an NCAA Tournament lock, but had ESPN commentators trying to convince the audience they were watching a top-10 team.
But don’t start taking guesses at where the Wolverines will be playing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament just yet.
Right after returning from New York as the 2K Classic champions, Michigan hit the road again. In their very next game at South Carolina, the Wolverines looked like a different team. Senior guard Zak Irvin lost his handle on the ball — committing eight turnovers — and the pair of Wagner and redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson vanished after breaking out on the big stage at the Garden.
Fast forward to Thursday night, and Michigan once again put together two performances in a row that make it look worthy of a top-25 ranking. Its defense prevented two of the Big Ten’s top offenses from scoring over 60 points, and its offense was as precise and efficient as it has ever been.
“We just wanted to continue to play with the same energy and the momentum that we carried over from Illinois,” Irvin said. “I think we’re playing consistent right now as a team. I think we did that for a full 40 minutes. If we do that, we’re gonna be a dangerous team.”
Just a couple weeks ago, many posed questions ranging from the Wolverines’ lack of grit and fortitude to Michigan coach John Beilein’s job security.
Now, two wins later, the question everyone will be asking is how can this team keep doing what has been working well.
Thursday night was the first time each one of Beilein’s “starting seven” showed up and did their respective jobs for an entire game.
That ranged from Abdur-Rahkman holding Indiana guard James Blackmon to four points; Wagner controlling his post matchup with center Thomas Bryant; Irvin and senior guard Derrick Walton making consistent and positive contributions on each end of the floor; and even redshirt junior guard Duncan Robinson and senior forward Mark Donnal coming off the bench and hitting big shots to extend the lead.
When those seven players come together and connect the way they did for 40 minutes, this team shows it is capable of going toe-to-toe with anybody in the country.
But how can the Wolverines keep this going over a stretch of 80 minutes? Or 120 minutes? Or two weeks from now?
What evidence has Michigan given us that suggests it won’t lay an egg when it travels to the Breslin Center on Sunday like it did against the Gamecocks?
Beilein and his players have suggested the team has grown, not only physically, but more importantly, mentally.
“Games aren’t won at halftime, and trophies aren’t given out with time still on the clock,” Walton said. “It’s all about finishing each play, having the same focus that got you there, increasing that to prevail you forward.”
Walton and Irvin realize they combine to form the engine that makes the Wolverines go. Irvin had arguably his worst individual game of the season in South Carolina after one of his best against Southern Methodist. The two varied performances demonstrate that Michigan relies on his consistency now more than ever.
And while Wagner and Wilson have grown tremendously since the start of the season, they’ve yet to show their respective skill in stretches of two or three games.
“There are going to be times when we look like a million bucks and times we’re not ready,” Beilein said. “Don’t forget, (Wilson) and (Wagner) are really evolving yet. They are really playing crunch time minutes for the first time. They are going to do things sometimes they have to learn from.”
Thursday showed what the Wolverines can be: A team that more than belongs in the NCAA Tournament, and a team that deserves a larger share of Big Ten and national attention.
“Personally, as a team that wants to win, we honestly believe that we can make a run in March,” Walton said. “Some things are gonna change, the ball’s not gonna go in like it did tonight every night. You can only control what you can control.”
Now the question becomes how long will this level of performance last?
We’ll find out Sunday in East Lansing.
Carney can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @br_carney.