NEW YORK CITY, NY. — As John Beilein recalls, it was three years ago in the regular season when he taped pictures of dogs on the wall in his team’s locker room — chihuahuas and poodles, to be exact.
The coach was met with confusion until he unveiled a picture of a pitbull to his players. That was reasonably the kind of feisty, focused dog he wanted his Michigan men’s basketball team to play like.
Dog analogies have since remained in Beilein’s motivational lexicon. With an upcoming rematch against No. 2 Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals, Beilein used the a similar sentiment to share his expectations for how the Wolverines will attack.
“It’s gonna be the meanest pitbull you’ve ever seen.”
In the same vein, it means that he wants his team to forget about the results from the teams’ matchup earlier this season — an 82-72 upset victory by Michigan in East Lansing on Jan. 13.
“I’m not trying to focus on (the regular season win) too much because it doesn’t mean tomorrow,” said junior forward Moritz Wagner. “We’re playing in the semifinals for a Big Ten Championship. And January 13th or whatever it was doesn’t mean anything tomorrow.”
At the time, the win over then-fourth-ranked Spartans looked like the linchpin to the Wolverines’ tournament resume. With Michigan having more than proved its March Madness worthiness in the following games, the win — in what was expected to be the teams’ only time facing each other this season — resembled having the last laugh of the in-state rivalry.
Now, of course, that isn’t case, and there’s a Big Ten Championship-game appearance at stake this time.
“You just can’t lose to a team like this,” said freshman guard Jordan Poole. “They feel the same way about us, but when you come out and play a game and it’s for a Big Ten Championship it’s even more on the line.
“… We wanted to play Michigan State. It’s as simple as that. We don’t pay attention to those guys. Obviously they’ve got a lot of hype and a lot of stuff going on with the team, but at the end of the day we’re still Michigan and we’ve got a lot of confidence.”
While Michigan comfortably outmanned Michigan State in the first matchup, a similar performance will be difficult to duplicate. The Wolverines forced 18 turnovers and converted 28 of 35 free throws, both staggering numbers primed to regress to the mean.
The Spartans are no strangers to coughing up the ball, though — they average 13.4 turnovers per game, last in the Big Ten. As has reigned true for many of Michigan’s games, defense remains the first priority. Against the Spartans, who boast the best field-goal percentage in the conference, that’s as specific as it gets.
For the Wolverines, that lockdown effort starts and ends with sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson, Michigan’s toughest pitbull.
“He gets so mad when I take him out and I just want him to get a little bit of rest,” Beilein said. “… Many times, whether it’s (Glynn) Watson tonight, last night (Jordan) Bohannon, Cassius Winston tomorrow — these are elite point guards in this league, and I think (Simpson is) an elite defensive point guard.”
Simpson’s hard-nosed, pestering attitude has steadily creeped into his offensive game too, evidenced by four, blow-by drives against Nebraska on Thursday. His aggressiveness has been cited by nearly all of the Wolverines in the rotation as the chief defensive spark for everyone playing.
But against the Spartans, even that may not be enough.
“You’ve gotta be ready to play,” Beilein said. This team is incredibly talented, really well coached. (Michigan State’s) got a great program there and we’ve gotta play like we’ve been playing and then some.”
And then some, for Beilein, means acting like the meanest pitbull there is.