Ah, March. In the world of college basketball, March can be a double-edged sword full of both promise and disappointment. For 67 teams, it’s a time when dreams die. For one fortunate team though, it’s a time when dreams are realized.
The NCAA Tournament is uncompromising in both difficulty and duration, meaning that few teams are truly cut out to make it all the way. Sure, there are always bracket-busting upsets and so-called Cinderellas that go further than anyone could’ve predicted. But, in general, there’s always a class of true contenders at the top — if they don’t make the Final Four, it’s a disappointment.
This year’s version of the Michigan men’s basketball team is in the upper echelon of that second category. At 18-1 overall and on the verge of clinching the Big Ten regular-season title pending a win over No. 4 Illinois on Tuesday night, the second-ranked Wolverines look infallible.
Since returning from a 23-day pause, Michigan has allayed any doubts about its championship potential. Over the last two weeks, the Wolverines have beaten Wisconsin, Rutgers, Ohio State, Iowa and Indiana — all slated to make the NCAA Tournament, according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi — by an average of 11.6 points.
Michigan is running roughshod through what is widely considered the best conference in the country. Take any one of the aforementioned five games and you see unmatched intensity and consistency from the Wolverines.
On Feb. 14, the Badgers came out and punched Michigan in the mouth with a barrage of 3-pointers while holding the Wolverines to 34% from the field. After arguably its worst half of the season, Michigan walked back to the locker room down by 12.
For most teams, that’s not a great spot to be in. No one told the Wolverines that.
“Our leader, our boss, (Michigan coach Juwan Howard) walked in clapping his hands,” senior wing Isaiah Livers said after the 67-59 win. “He’s smiling, talking about, ‘This is where we want to be. We’ve been in this situation before, not in a game, in a practice, a scrimmage. Find some way to put yourself in the situation again, you’ve already been there.’ And we did that exactly. Nobody was pointing fingers, nobody was upset.”
Championship mettle isn’t just demonstrated in tight road victories like the one against Wisconsin and Michigan’s five-point win over the Buckeyes eight days ago. It also manifests itself in the second half of games like Saturday’s, when the Wolverines turned a nine-point lead against the Hoosiers into 17 within the blink of an eye.
“They just keep coming,” Indiana coach Archie Miller told reporters after the game. “There’s a reason I think Michigan is championship-good, and I think a lot of people will talk about their skill level, and a lot of people will talk about their versatility and their ball movement and how hard they are to guard. I think they’re one of the most difficult teams to play against on the other end of the floor.”
Michigan is relentless. Regardless of the score, the Wolverines never seem phased. The energy they bring to every sideline keeps the team engaged from tip-off to the final buzzer. It’s why no double-digit halftime lead seems out of reach and why a single-digit advantage for Michigan snowballs rather than shrinks — just ask Fran McCaffrey and Iowa.
“There aren’t many fans, if any at all, so you kinda got to bring your own energy,” Michigan video analyst Jaaron Simmons told the Daily. “We go by the motto, ‘For competitors only,’ so we have our players competing on the floor, but on the bench, we’re competing as well. … When we are as a unit over on the bench, loud and banging on the bleachers and stomping on the ground, that brings energy to the group that’s on the floor, and it’s just part of that competitive spirit. We want every advantage.”
The Wolverines rarely, if ever, experience scoring droughts or prolonged defensive lapses. At the end of games, opposing coaches are left reconciling defeat with the fact that their team — as Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said on Feb. 18 — “played really hard from start to finish.”
“That’s as good a team as I’ve played in my five years as a coach in this league,” he added.
And so, while Michigan may have lost to Minnesota earlier this season with senior guard Eli Brooks out due to injury, that game certainly seems more a mirage than a blueprint. As we’ve seen throughout the season, all things being equal, opposing teams can’t just beat the Wolverines by playing a half, or even 35 minutes, of really good basketball. Beating Michigan is a 40-minute endeavor.
Advancing through March — with the NCAA Tournament being the great equalizer that it is — is one of the toughest gauntlets to run in all of sports, college or pro. Whichever two teams are left standing on that first Monday night in April will have earned their way, standing as the two best teams in the country.
The Wolverines look every bit the part.
Brennan can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @connrbrennan.