It’s that time of year. Single elimination basketball, lose a game and you’re done. Sure, that looks a little different for the Michigan men’s basketball team this season. No March Madness frenzy, no spot in the 68-team field, no massive national spotlight.
But the NIT is still an opportunity to make one final postseason run, whatever that may look like. And for veterans like graduate guard Joey Baker, it’s a chance to play while knowing each game might be his last.
Baker is working on NCAA applications, trying to gain eligibility for one more year. But currently in his fifth year, his future eligibility is far from certain. So facing elimination against Toledo in the first round of the NIT Tournament, it truly could have been Baker’s last game.
And he played like it.
With 21 points on 5-for-7 shooting from deep, Baker easily eclipsed his season-high 14-points and season-average 5.1 entering the contest. He got going early, quickly shaking himself out of a slump that saw him score just five points in the final three games of the season.
Previously, he had wilted in the spotlight, missing two game-saving shots in Michigan’s double-overtime loss to Illinois. But Tuesday’s performance was a chance for redemption, helping lead the Wolverines past the Rockets.
And it didn’t just cause a stir in-game, it raised eyebrows postgame too. When a reporter asked Baker about his season-high performance, junior center Hunter Dickinson — sitting beside him — seemed impressed. He leaned over and they quickly whispered about it to each other, exchanging nods as Baker quietly acknowledged that point total.
When he finally raised his voice to address the question directly, Baker made sure to add more nuance than just the final total. And after growing into more of a leadership role as the season progressed, his deflecting credit wasn’t surprising.
“I just was getting open shots,” Baker said. “I think (Dickinson) hit me for one. … (Freshman guard Dug McDaniel) found me for a great look in the second half too, so I was just getting good looks and my teammates set me up.”
Although Baker was quick to pass credit around, he also made plays for himself within the 3-point line. On multiple occasions, he released off a defensive rebound and ran the floor, getting past the defense and scoring in transition — a different look for the spot-up shooter.
On one of those plays in the first half, Baker doubled down on his uncharacteristic offensive methods. Driving and stopping on a dime in the post before a pump fake and a spin, he left his defender shaken, not stirred. At that moment, a player who faded late in the regular season began to reintroduce himself.
The name’s Baker — Joey Baker.
As the game progressed, he further re-familiarized Crisler Center with his game. Carrying that hot hand throughout his efficient shooting night, he helped put the game on ice with 3:36 left, draining a three to extend Michigan’s lead to 10.
Following the make, all Toledo’s ‘Rocket’ mascot could do was put its hands on its hips and nod its head, seemingly accepting Baker’s newfound confidence and its ramifications. The mascot, like the rest of the team, could do nothing but simply acknowledge the performance.
A performance that Baker has been thinking about for some time, given the do-or-die nature of the postseason and the uncertainty around his future.
“I think you’re weird if you’re not (thinking) in the back of your head, ‘this could be your last time putting on a jersey in college,’ ” Baker said. “So that was on my mind heavy the past few days, and I want to go out and try to win as many games as possible.”
Baker doesn’t want his college playing days to end, and his performance helped prolong his guaranteed time a little longer. But beyond Saturday’s clash with Vanderbilt to continue the NIT, a chance at one more year of eligibility still potentially looms.
So the stir Baker created post game with his play extended into discussion about the impact he had on the program this season when Michigan coach Juwan Howard took the podium. As he was asked about Baker potentially returning, Howard clasped his hands as if in prayer, hoping it would work out.
“We’re gonna try hard, we’re gonna give it our best shot, and we would love to have him back,” Howard said. “And not just because (how he shoots the ball), but just overall the person. He just fits in the locker room, the guys enjoy playing with him, he’s also now opening up and becoming a better leader.”
All that growth — late-season struggles and all — culminated for Baker to open the NIT. He started cooking early, and didn’t let up. This late in the season, this late in his career, that’s a given.
Because he’s not ready for his playing career to end, and he proved it against Toledo.