It’s one of the equalizers in sports, an intangible that never shows up on the stat sheet but often influences the game just as much as anything found there.
And the Michigan men’s basketball team will have plenty of motivation this weekend at the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago.
Its opening-round match-up comes this afternoon against Minnesota, an opponent the Wolverines have become quite familiar with over the past two years. After two convincing wins over the Golden Gophers last season, Michigan faced Minnesota for a third time in the first round of the conference tournament. Perhaps expecting a third easy victory, the Wolverines lost the game. A few days later, Michigan received the news that they would not be invited to the NCAA Tournament.
Michigan is 8-8 in the Big Ten this season, the same record it sported entering the tournament last year. But the Wolverines are playing much better down the stretch this season. While it finished last year’s regular season on a 2-6 skid, Michigan has recently been playing its best basketball. The team has won four of its past seven contests, including home victories over Michigan State and then-No. 24 Indiana. It also came within two minutes of upsetting No. 1 Ohio State Saturday.
But there’s also a difference in the Wolverines’ attitude.
“I think last year we sort of thought we were in the (NCAA) Tournament,” senior Courtney Sims said. “I think we know we have to win . so I think we’re going to have more of a sense of urgency.”
Added senior Dion Harris: “We didn’t come in and give it our all. We didn’t compete. That’s the only reason why we lost. I don’t have an explanation for it – it just happened. With the guys that played last year, we know what we have to do. It’s all on the line again.”
Fellow senior Brent Petway is out for revenge as well, citing the loss to the Golden Gophers as the reason Michigan played in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) rather than the NCAAs.
But if they do get past the Golden Gophers, a revenge game against Ohio State awaits the Wolverines in the second round.
Harris and Sims both described Saturday’s loss to the Buckeyes as the worst defeat of their careers. And if for some strange reason Michigan needs extra motivation to beat the Buckeyes even after such a crushing loss, a win over the best team in the country on a neutral court would be looked upon kindly by the NCAA Selection Committee.
Such a victory still might not be enough to propel the Wolverines – currently on the outer edge of the bubble – into the Big Dance. And Michigan knows that.
“I think our mindset is that we’ve got to get to the (Big Ten) Championship,” Harris said. “And that’s what we’re going in and trying to do. Obviously taking it game by game, but we want to get to the championship.”
The opportunities for revenge might continue beyond the game with the Buckeyes if the Wolverines can pull off the upset. If Iowa gets past Purdue, Michigan would get a chance to retaliate for what most consider its worst home loss this season – a 69-62 defeat at the hands of the Hawkeyes on Jan. 31. And if they beat Iowa, the Wolverines would be right where Harris wants them.
If Michigan loses to Minnesota, however, it knows the consequences.
“This is the end right here – you don’t get another chance,” Sims said. “So if we go out and don’t play as well as we can and lose against Minnesota, that’s it for us.”
The Wolverines lack a lot going into this weekend: A marquee victory, a single significant road win and an impressive ratings percentage index (RPI) number come to mind.
But motivation certainly won’t be hard to find.
Michigan at Big Ten Tournament Matchup: Minnesota 9-21; Michigan 20-11
Where: United Center