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Isaiah Livers hoisted himself up the ladder step-by-step, bits of maize confetti still clinging to his jersey, remnants of a snow angel from minutes earlier. Once the rim came within reach, he clipped the last thread of nylon and waved the net in the air, draping it around his neck for the descent. 

In dispatching Michigan State, the Michigan men’s basketball team captured the Big Ten championship outright for the first time since 2014. 

“I knew in the back of my mind, I wanted to get the outright,” Livers said after the game, the net still placed around his neck. “And why not with this team? We’re special. Guys work hard, guys want in, guys play for one another. Ball can roll for anybody. We all play like brothers, we all love each other.” 

Thursday’s victory over the Spartans is an apt microcosm of what the Wolverines have done all year. Things could have gone haywire — the Spartans, feisty and physical, their NCAA Tournament aspirations squarely on life support, seemed determined to put up a fight. Just two nights ago, No. 4 Illinois humiliated Michigan on national television. Performances like those threaten to fester. 

Instead, five minutes into the second half, the game, and championship, were wrapped up. As they have nearly all season, Michigan proved utterly dominant. Each obstacle hardly amounted to a speedbump. 

“We rolled up our sleeves and figured out along the way,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “A lot of different things (were) thrown our way, we didn’t make excuses for it. We continued to keep grinding and grinding.” 

Five months ago, the thought of the Wolverines winning the Big Ten seemed preposterous. The offseason proved chaotic, with three players transferring out of the program and two blue-chip recruits opting to go elsewhere at the last minute in a capricious 24-hour span. To replace the ball-dominant Zavier Simpson and two-year stalwart Jon Teske, Michigan turned to a graduate transfer point guard from Columbia and a freshman center. 

Two games in, the Wolverines did little to assuage those concerns. Against Oakland, a middling team in the Horizon League, the Wolverines flirted with disaster, scraping out a win in overtime. 

“I just said, ‘Hey, we have to prove ourselves,’ and I knew we were gonna have to prove ourselves back in June,” Howard said. “The guys would tell you, from June I started talking about, this is championship habits. We’re gonna develop championship habits, how we practice, how we prepare ourselves, how we compete. There are gonna be some special things happen, but we have to go in and work hard at it.” 

At each roadblock, Michigan proved itself. A University-mandated pause on all athletic programs threatened to derail a promising season, yet the Wolverines returned from the 23-day hiatus even stronger, ripping off three top-25 victories in their first four games back. After being embarrassed by Illinois, Livers and the Wolverines vowed to be better; forty-eight hours later, they were showered in confetti. 

“Our guys earned it,” Howard said. “They earned this Big Ten championship by the belief they had for each other.” 

In a season as unprecedented and challenging as any other in the history of the sport, Michigan dominated. And they did so in what is widely regarded as the premier conference in college basketball. 

“This was definitely one of the things that I knew that this team was capable of doing when (Howard) first recruited me,” graduate transfer guard Mike Smith said. “I looked at the roster and I knew this roster had a lot of pieces.” 

The question, though, was how those pieces would gel together. The Wolverines are Big Ten champions in large part because of the collective buy-in from players up-and-down the roster, the team a living embodiment of the mantra that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. 

Senior guard Chaundee Brown, a three-year starter at Wake Forest, embraced his sixth-man role without a second thought. Smith, the reigning Ivy League scoring champ, tabled his scoring prowess to shine as a facilitator. Livers and sophomore wing Franz Wagner combined to fill the playmaking void left by Simpson. 

Because of that mentality, after the game, each ascended up the ladder as newly-minted Big Ten champions.

“It’s a beautiful moment,” Howard said. “These kids deserve it because they’ve worked so hard. … Been some long, sleepless nights. It’s nothing like winning.” 

After the game, with the celebration well underway, Howard stood at center-court, squarely on the Block-M and gazed toward the stands. With his left hand, he held up a sign reading “BIG Champions Men’s Basketball 2021.” 

He held up his right hand and vigorously motioned with his right index finger, repeatedly tapping the word “champions.” 

That one finger has more than one meaning. 

“This season’s not over,” Howard said. “Our goal is to be the last one standing in the first week of April and we’re working towards that.” 

And this iteration of Wolverines, outright Big Ten regular-season champions, certainly seems destined for more celebrations the rest of the way. 

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