If the Michigan men’s basketball team is still looking for its identity after that, it’s looking too hard.
On Sunday, the Wolverines had their most important win of their recent resurgence, an odd thing to say days after they rolled their in-state rival by 29. But the reason Michigan’s 75-63 win over Indiana was so impressive was about more than Derrick Walton Jr.’s continued scoring tear or D.J. Wilson’s defensive dominance — though both were critical. It’s about time and place. It’s about context. It’s about all the ways the game could have gone wrong and didn’t — because the Wolverines wouldn’t let it.
In every moment you thought they’d finally cave, they only got tougher. Their senior point guard looked like an All-American. Their defense took balls away near the basket. And they did all this at Assembly Hall, a place in which they hadn’t won since 2009.
It was all enough to ask, “Who are we talking about here?”
For the first time in a long time, the answer was the Michigan men’s basketball team.
Coming off a blowout win in a rivalry that has been torturous of late, the Wolverines somehow delivered a more impressive win in the follow up. Michigan may not have actually played any better than it did when it dispatched the Spartans on Thursday, but when you take rivalry out of the equation, Sunday’s victory could go a lot farther.
First, and most importantly, the Wolverines got an all-important road win. And, again, the context mattered. Entering Sunday’s matchup, Michigan was 0-6 on the road yet probably needed to win three of its final five road games to have good shot at the NCAA Tournament. With a loss to the Hoosiers, those odds would have decreased in a hurry. The fact that the Wolverines won on the road is what pushes the Indiana win ahead in the importance standings. It’s one thing to win when your home crowd is behind you, but another entirely to do it in hostile confines.
Second, Michigan received its contributions from the right places — even with one of the most important contributors notably absent. Walton notched his fifth straight game with 20 or more points. Wilson scored 13 points on 6-of-11 shooting, plus three blocks and three steals, including one stretch where he stole two passes and blocked a shot on three consecutive possessions. Sophomore center Moritz Wagner tallied a double-double and redshirt junior wing Duncan Robinson added eight points off the bench.
And they did all of this without much of anything from senior wing Zak Irvin, who, presumably, can’t stay this cold forever. It’s hard to understate how impressive Michigan has been this week while getting little to nothing from Irvin, arguably the team’s most important scorer.
In fact, Irvin may be the only key piece of the team’s puzzle that’s not in alignment right now. And if you assume he will eventually find some semblance of the player he was earlier this season, that bodes extremely well for the Wolverines if they can maintain this level of energy.
That energy, along with the staggering breakout of Walton, seems to be the key in accounting for this recent run. It was best seen Sunday through the team’s offensive rebounding effort, including three by Wagner, but it was also evident from Wilson’s extendo-arms on defense and the way Indiana’s runs didn’t prove catastrophic.
Energy would at least partially explain why Michigan won the game with relative security, even while shooting markedly worse (by 13 percent from the floor and 11 percent on 3-pointers) than they did against the Spartans on Tuesday.
Perhaps most important is not what this energy caused, but what it could be a sign of: hope.
The Wolverines have now won four of their last six. They have done two things — blowing out Michigan State and winning at Indiana — that no one on the team had done previously. They are peaking just in time to get maximum exposure for their resume-building wins.
With No. 7 Wisconsin set to visit Ann Arbor on Thursday, Michigan has an opportunity for an NCAA Tournament resume headliner this week. And if the Wolverines do indeed end up punching their ticket to the tournament, they can look back on Sunday as the day they fortified the three things you can’t make it through March without: A resume, an identity, and hope.