INDIANAPOLIS — With less than three minutes remaining in the Michigan men’s basketball team’s game against Northwestern on Thursday, Michigan coach John Beilein turned to his bench, fired up.
“That is us,” Beilein shouted. “That is us. We’ve gotta be the first to the floor.”
Beilein was reacting to a play on the opposite side of the court. Sophomore guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman had just broken up a Wildcat pass headed toward the low post and then sprawled out on the floor to go after the loose ball. Abdur-Rahkman locked his hands on it and tried to claw it away from Northwestern guard Tre Demps. The two got tied up before a whistle called it a jump ball.
Northwestern regained possession but couldn’t convert, and junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. ran the floor on Michigan’s turn and drew a foul, picking up two free throws to break a tie and give Michigan (10-8 Big Ten, 21-11 overall) the lead back.
That is us. That is us.
Thursday, that was Michigan. Gritty. Tough. Willing to dive on the floor and scrap for a loose ball.
Before Thursday, in many of Michigan’s losses, that hard-nosed play has not been characteristic of the Wolverines. It has been more representative of their opponents.
Admittedly, Beilein has said that teaching that toughness has been more difficult this season.
“It’s something I expect, and it happens sometimes in practice, and it doesn’t (sometimes),” Beilein said. “This is a particular team that I’ve got to be tougher on.
“We’ve just got to continue to work at that aspect of it. Some younger guys on our team, that is not as natural to them as some other teams I’ve had.”
Thursday, the team didn’t just talk about being gritty. It executed.
Before Abdur-Rahkman’s efforts, in another tied-game situation late in the second half, sophomore forward Ricky Doyle boxed out hard against Northwestern forward Sanjay Lumpkin on a Wildcat missed shot. Doyle bodied his man and then hit the deck along with Walton to fight for a loose ball. The referees called a jump ball, and the possession arrow favored Michigan. On the Wolverines’ next possession, junior guard Zak Irvin hit a jumper, breaking the tie.
“(Beilein) stresses those a lot,” Doyle said. “Always in practice, 50-50 balls have to be ours. Always first to the floor, that’s a big emphasis in practice, too.
“It definitely gets us fired up, because you know, we’re giving all we have and giving a little extra to get that 50-50 ball for the team.”
Against Northwestern, Michigan needed every bit of that extra fire en route to a 72-70 overtime win.
“That’s something the team itself has been stressing,” Walton said. “We know that that was a big key in a couple of losses, and we didn’t want to fall victim to the same thing twice or three times, so it’s been a personal thing within this locker room to make sure we get the balls that are in the bounce.”
Walton is perhaps one of Michigan’s most aggressive players going for loose balls. Even at just 6-foot-1, Walton leads the team in rebounding, pacing 5.7 boards per game, and he knows how valuable those extra possession can be.
“It gives us the extra possession, as you can see, the arrow was in our favor a couple of times,” Walton said. “By diving out there, it gives us the ball, so it’s all about getting the extra possession. Guys that get the most possessions in the game are usually victorious, so again it was all about guys wanting to get the extra possession.”
Against Indiana on Friday, Michigan will need every possession it can get. When the teams met last time on Feb. 2, the Wolverines were flat, shooting worse than 30 percent from the field in the first half and getting beaten, 14-7, on the offensive glass.
If Michigan plays with the same grittiness on Friday that it had on Thursday and can complement that with sharp shooting and solid defense, it has a chance to hang with the tournament’s top-seeded team.