Throughout the season, members of the Michigan men’s basketball team said their goal was to make the NCAA Tournament.
Nineteen games into this year’s campaign, the Wolverines held a 16-3 record and looked to be coasting to that goal. So following their victory against Penn State on Feb. 1, if you had told the team it would be going to the Final Four, it would’ve been elated.
Today, the team will do exactly that: play in the Final Four. But instead of playing in the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four, Michigan will be making its second trip – in the past three seasons – to New York City for the NIT’s Final Four.
“It’s always exciting to play at Madison Square Garden,” junior forward Brent Petway said. “You can’t beat that.”
And lately, when it comes to the NIT, you can’t beat Michigan, either. The Wolverines are tied with NIT semifinalist South Carolina as the team with the longest postseason winning streak. Both teams hold an eight-game unbeaten streak and hope to bring it into double digits by Thursday night.
But before Madison Square Garden officials can start advertising a “battle of the NIT giants” final matchup, both the Wolverines and Gamecocks have opponents to face tonight that aren’t as familiar with Madison Square Garden.
Michigan faces off against Old Dominion, which hasn’t played at the Garden in more than 20 years.
The other semifinal pits South Carolina against Louisville, a team accustomed to making the other tournament in March.
The veteran-laden Michigan squad hopes it can use its Madison Square Garden trip two years ago as a learning experience.
“It helps a lot,” said junior guard Dion Harris of the 2004 team’s NIT Final Four appearance. “For us, it’s knowing we played there in the NIT, and then we came back the next year and played in the preseason, so we’ve had some games there. We feel comfortable in the Garden.”
Harris, who hit the game-winning 3-pointer in Michigan’s second-round win over Notre Dame, also thinks the pro-style court could play to Michigan’s advantage.
“Our first time we went there, (the pro court) messed with us a little bit,” Harris said. “We were trying to shoot the pro three and things like that. We’re an experienced team, and we’ve played in a lot of pro arenas. I don’t think that will be a problem with us.”
The Monarchs don’t have anybody on their roster averaging over 15 points per game, but seem to be playing their best basketball of the season. They are coming off an upset victory over No. 2-seeded Hofstra, a game in which Old Dominion snapped Hofstra’s 21-game home winning streak.
Senior Isaiah Hunter, the team’s leading scorer at 14.6 points per contest, is coming off a career-best 29-point performance.
Michigan hopes to counter Old Dominion’s senior leader with the recent strong play of its own seniors.
Throughout the NIT, Michigan coach Tommy Amaker has used an all-senior starting lineup. In Michigan’s last game, a four-point victory over Miami, Michigan’s senior trio of Daniel Horton, Chris Hunter and Graham Brown all did their part to leave Crisler Arena the right way, putting up double figures in either points or rebounds.
“We start our seniors in this tournament, and they’ve been setting the tone every game,” Harris said. “We just want to go out and match their intensity and go out and play as hard as they’re playing.”
Old Dominion has never beaten a team from the Big Ten in the 75 years it has played basketball. It lost to Wisconsin, 84-81, earlier this season in the finals of the Paradise Jam tournament.
Last season, the Monarchs’ season came to an end at the hands of Michigan State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
This season, the Wolverines hope to do the same, and bring themselves to the NIT finals for a shot at their second title in three years.
Michigan vs. Old Dominion
Madison Square Garden