Ignas Brazdeikis stood in front of reporters last Friday with Michigan’s showdown against Wisconsin looming.
Holding an undefeated, 17-0 record and a No. 2 national ranking, the Wolverines were riding high, and so was Brazdeikis. That’s nothing out of the ordinary — if one thing defines the freshman forward besides scoring in bunches, it’s an exuberant self-confidence and an air of swagger.
A win over the Badgers had the potential to push Michigan to No. 1 overall, its first such ranking in six years. So it’s understandable that Friday’s conversation eventually turned to then-No. 1 Duke and its own star freshman forward, Zion Williamson. How would the Wolverines fare against the Blue Devils? Would Brazdeikis guard Williamson?
What do you think he said?
“I would love to play Duke. … They’ve got that No. 1 team, that No. 1 hype, and we feel like we’re definitely better than them. We’re just looking forward to playing every single team, and we’re not scared of no competition. … I would love to guard Zion. I’ll guard anyone.”
Fewer than 24 hours later, Brazdeikis and his teammates quietly slumped away while Wisconsin fans stormed the floor of Kohl Center, fresh off a 64-54 upset that knocked Michigan from the ranks of the unbeaten. The loss was a gut-punch, and probably even more so for Brazdeikis, who was averaging 15.6 points per game coming in. For the first time in his college career, he was held scoreless.
Then Brazdeikis missed his first seven shots on Tuesday against Minnesota. The narrative looked to be in full force — the Wolverines and their swaggering youngster humbled at last. The freshman finally was figured out. Maybe Brazdeikis was an ordinary rookie after all.
Not to his teammates.
“I told him to stay aggressive,” said redshirt junior guard Charles Matthews. “I told him, I kinda went through the same thing last year, where you might not be as productive as you once was. I just told him stay aggressive at all costs, I believe in you, keep going.”
Added junior center Jon Teske: “He’s a great player. Shooters gonna shoot, and he’s going to do that. He’s going to get to the paint, he’s going to attack.”
With 1:45 remaining before halftime, Brazdeikis spun past a defender and banked home his first basket since Jan. 13. He added a left-handed layup a minute later, giving him momentum into intermission.
“I was just like, thank goodness I got something to go for me,” Brazdeikis said. “I’m obviously not going to lose confidence in myself, that’s definitely something that’s not going to happen with me. But my teammates just trusting me and the coaches trusting me to keep going, keep playing — that’s the only reason why I could do this.”
“This” was Brazdeikis nearly single-handedly putting the Wolverines in control of the game with eight points in the span of three minutes. Two minutes into the second half, he knocked down a 3-pointer to cut a seven-point deficit to four. After a defensive stop on the next possession, he grabbed the rebound, rushed up the court and turned a head of steam into an and-one layup.
Brazdeikis yelled and flexed his arms as Teske gave him an enthusiastic chest-bump. Back was his signature celebration. Back was the intensity and the fire that defines his game. Back when Michigan needed it most.
“He’s not a guy that carries a lot of baggage around with him,” said Wolverines coach John Beilein. “ … He’s pretty good at moving on to the next play. He was the only one that was making plays at times this game.”
It was that kind of night for Michigan. It shot just 34 percent from the field and 3-of-22 from outside. Brazdeikis put up an 18-point and 11-rebound double-double, but on an ugly 4-of-18 line. Still, he never stopped attacking, resulting in a 9-for-11 showing from the foul line.
And so it was Brazdeikis the Wolverines put their trust in to ice the game.
On their last possession, Brazdeikis caught the ball at the top of the key. Off a Jordan Poole screen, Golden Gophers defenders Gabe Kalscheur and Jordan Murphy both hedged on Brazdeikis as he powered to the hoop.
“It shows that Coach (Beilein) has confidence in him and so do we,” Teske said. “You know he’s going to make the right play. He drove and he had a good look at the basket.”
Brazdeikis’ layup was blocked, but that’s beside the point.
“We were trying to get Iggy isolated and get something in the lane so we had enough time to get an offensive rebound, don’t rush a three,” Beilein said. “(Brazdeikis is a) great foul shooter and guy that could finish at the rim, you don’t want to settle in that situation.”
Added Brazdeikis: “It means the world to me. I’m not going to shy away from moments like that, that’s just not who I am.”
None of this is to sugarcoat a 4-for-18 shooting night. After the loss to Wisconsin, Beilein noted that the Badgers were able to slow Brazdeikis by putting 6-foot-10 Ethan Happ on him — flustering him with length.
It’s clear that after 19 games, teams are beginning to develop adequate scouting reports on Brazdeikis. For example, Minnesota was able to hedge so hard on the final play with the knowledge that Brazdeikis, averaging just one assist per game, was unlikely to pass out of his drive. For Brazdeikis to continue his same level of success, Michigan will need him to adapt to enhanced scouting.
But even though Tuesday was far, far from Ignas Brazdeikis’ finest performance, it was one of his most defining.
Any player can have an off-night, and Brazdeikis is hardly immune. But the confidence that sets apart the most elite scorers; the confidence that Brazdeikis has in droves?
It’s not going anywhere.