When Phil Martelli sat down for a Zoom call with reporters Wednesday morning, the Michigan men’s basketball team’s associate head coach began fielding the usual questions. Questions about tomorrow’s opponent, Rutgers. Questions about the challenges the Scarlet Knights pose for the Wolverines. Questions about players’ injury status.
But it’s late February. Eventually, someone was going to ask about the NCAA Tournament.
When they did, Martelli stopped them in their tracks, answering the question before the reporter could even finish asking it.
“1-0,” Martelli interjected. “1-0. 1-0. And that starts today. That’s not tomorrow night. … I get it. I understand you can’t avoid it. … (But) what’s in our control is to go 1-0 today, and then go 1-0 tomorrow.”
The way Martelli sees it, ‘1-0’ goes further than focusing on the game at hand. It means focusing on the today, the now. It means winning practices, film sessions, the things the Wolverines can control and leaving everything else — like how certain teams on the tournament’s fringes are performing — out of mind and out of sight.
In a season filled with low points and an increasingly difficult path to a tournament bid ahead of them, Martelli credits junior center Hunter Dickinson with instilling the ‘1-0’ mindset as the team enters its fate-determining final four games. Following a film session on Saturday before Michigan’s win over Michigan State, Martelli recalled Michigan coach Juwan Howard turning to Dickinson and asking if there’s anything he’d like to add.
“1-0,” Dickinson allegedly said.
After the win, Martelli asked Dickinson to stay with that mentality. So far, he claims the team has done so and was comfortable saying the Wolverines have gone 1-0 each day this week so far.
Whether the team went 1-0 at practices this week or not is up to them. On Thursday in Piscataway, however, Michigan’s ‘1-0’ record on the day will be far less subjective. The final scoresheet will decide it, and Rutgers won’t make it easy.
“Juwan has had a saying with our teams about ‘junkyard dogs’ in a very complimentary way, and we have seen a lot of those types of teams, but (Rutgers) is top of the list,” Martelli said. “They’re tough as tough could be. Seven steals per game, they play at times undersized, they’re built defensively first and they build off of the energy and the noise that is provided with their home court.”
The Scarlet Knights build their defense around their length, spreading out to the ball, sitting down and forcing stops. Active and fundamentally sound, Rutgers allows the fewest points-per-game in the Big Ten at 60.6, and the Scarlet Knights do it by getting everyone involved.
Even guard Cam Spencer, Rutgers’ second-leading scoring but smallest starter, makes his mark on defense. He averages the third-highest steals-per-game in the conference, with his teammate, guard Caleb McConnell, topping the list.
While McConnell’s back injury leaves him unlikely to play Thursday, the Scarlet Knights’ defensive unit will still force the Wolverines to earn everything — including turning a ‘1-0’ mindset into a win on Thursday.
“In these kinds of situations you better lace your sneakers tight,” Martelli said. “If you are in any way adverse to being hit on the chin, then don’t make this trip. Because that’s what this will be. This will be very physical, they play older. … Their whole is greater than their parts.”
The battle at Rutgers will be Michigan’s first of three Quad 1 opportunities to close out the regular season. Its NCAA Tournament chances are slim, but converting on a string of resume-building games going into the Big Ten Tournament can drastically change those odds. It all starts with a physical road test against the Scarlet Knights.
But no matter what future opportunities present themselves in the schedule’s final stretch, Martelli claims the Wolverines are focused on the day-to-day, on their own team. They aren’t thinking about bracketology, the bubble or which upcoming games are Quad 1.
Instead, they’re thinking about going 1-0.