Just over a month ago, on Feb. 4, the Michigan men’s basketball team was in a dire position.
Ahead of a home game against lowly Ohio State — which the Wolverines would go on to lose — they were sitting at 14-8, with a 4-5 record in a weak Big Ten. As it stood, they were in line to be the No. 8 seed in the Big Ten Tournament and far from a safe bet to make the NCAA Tournament.
It’s surreal, then, that after a month in which the Wolverines have been as hot as any team in the conference, they still find themselves as a No. 8 seed when the Big Ten Tournament begins this week. They knocked off both of the Big Ten’s two best teams, scored blowout wins over Michigan State and Indiana and all but clinched an NCAA bid.
In one sense, that last piece is all that truly matters. Michigan’s Big Ten Tournament will count for little more than seeding, and, regardless of their position in the conference tournament, the Wolverines are playing like an entirely different team than they were in February.
But there is one aspect of being the No. 8 seed that creates an irresistible storyline leading up to this tournament for Michigan. The team it will face, Illinois, is due at least partial credit for starting the Wolverines’ second-half run in the first place.
By now, of course, Maverick Morgan’s name has become a verbal punching bag in Ann Arbor.
When he called the Wolverines’ a “white-collar” team after the Illini beat Michigan, 85-69, in Champaign on Jan. 11, it lit a fire. How fitting it is that, as the Wolverines now look to go on another run — this time through a conference tournament they seem suddenly equipped to navigate — it will start with Morgan and the Fighting Illini.
Ten days after “the white-collar game,” Michigan exacted revenge by outplaying Illinois at Crisler Center. It’s worth mentioning, of course, that it took some time, even after that win, before the Wolverines rounded into the form they have been in down the stretch. But it was still easy to see the different mentality they cultivated.
And while back-to-back losses to the Spartans and Buckeyes put that new mentality in question, Michigan has gone 6-2 in the last month, with its only two losses coming in overtime and on a buzzer-beater. The whole way, it has looked like a tougher, livelier team.
Now, just in time for the postseason, the Wolverines will get an up-close reminder of what sparked that initial flame — and how far they’ve come.
Even though the No. 8 vs. No. 9 game — in which Michigan has played each of the last three years — is typically considered a toss-up, the Wolverines’ recent run should have them favored over Illinois. They have a senior point guard in Derrick Walton Jr. who is playing with a graceful brand of desperation. They have a big man in Moritz Wagner who, at any given time, is liable to be the best player on the court. And, most importantly, they have a supporting cast that is willing to accept the roles they’ve needed to accept in order to experience this success.
Consider, for a moment, that at the time of the “white-collar” comment, Zak Irvin was the relatively unquestioned go-to guy on the team. Now, Irvin, though still a gifted scorer, has accepted a secondary role as Walton has surged to the forefront. Some of this was surely not of his choosing — a lengthy slump forced other Wolverines to step forward — but to watch this Irvin after seeing him in the early going is to see a player increasingly comfortable with not dominating the ball.
Off the bench, two players at opposite ends of their Michigan careers have added punch, too. Freshman point guard Xavier Simpson has emerged as a viable backup or complement to Walton, while senior forward Mark Donnal has added a handful of sublime blocks — the epitome of someone rejecting the “white-collar” label.
Hardly any of this could have been said a month ago, when a rematch win over Illinois looked like it might have been among the highlights of the season.
Thursday, the Wolverines will get a chance to win a game against Illinois that they’re expected to win. They’d be wise not to forget why that’s the case.