It seems that the Michigan basketball team couldn’t wait to put the regular season behind it. After finishing the season with a hard-fought overtime loss to Iowa and losing 11 of its final 12 games, the players and coaches seemed excited to start a new “season.”

The Wolverines are eager to start fresh in the Big Ten Tournament, which begins with Michigan facing Northwestern in the opening round. The team is looking forward to all teams being on equal footing once again, since all 11 teams are hypothetically capable of making a run for the conference’s NCAA Tournament berth.

Michigan (4-12 Big Ten, 13-17 overall) has had success catching fire in a postseason tournament, which it exhibited when it won the NIT title last season. Michigan coach Tommy Amaker believes that his players can use last season as an example of how gaining momentum at the right time can make all the difference.

“The last time we played in a (postseason) tournament, we did fairly well,” Amaker said. “We’re going to talk to our kids about (the NIT title), and we’ll rekindle some positive thoughts and some confidence. We were able to do some really good things with that one-and-done format.”

For the players, the motivation is obvious — you lose, you go home. The NIT is not a possibility this season, as Michigan needs four wins to reach a .500 record and be NIT-eligible. Those four wins would give the Wolverines the Big Ten Tournament title and secure the NCAA Tournament automatic bid. But the players seem to use the single-elimination format to inspire themselves.

“You have to take it one game at a time,” sophomore forward Brent Petway said. “If you start thinking about the next game, you lose focus. You can’t overlook anyone.”

Michigan split the season series with Northwestern (6-10, 13-15) — with the most recent game matchup just two weeks ago. During that game, the Wildcats surged to a 28-4 lead and never looked back.

“We need to start out a little bit better,” Petway said. “We started out the game so slow, and they got that big lead, and it was too big to dig ourselves out of.”

Said sophomore guard Dion Harris: “I don’t think we were ready to play. We tried to dig ourselves out but came up short. We want to have a great start as opposed to the start we had (in Evanston).”

One of the reasons Northwestern was able to secure such a commanding lead was the play of forward Vedran Vukusic. The junior led all scorers with 26 points on 11-for-13 shooting. His ability to shoot 3-pointers has made him difficult to guard for Michigan’s defenders. In their first meeting of the season on Jan. 12, Vukusic scored 22 points in Michigan’s 71-61 win. In order to be successful, Amaker stated the need to deny the 6-foot-8 Vukusic easy baskets.

“He’s a tough matchup in terms of his inside-outside game,” Amaker said. “He has great a feel and awareness of the game. He’s very skilled for his size. I’m hoping we’ll make him work for the baskets. He took advantage of our miscues (last time).”

Michigan can’t afford too many lapses in the Big Ten Tournament if it wants to reach the postseason. Michigan has performed fairly well in the tournament since its inception in 1998 — it has not lost a first-round game since 2001 — and the Wolverines won a vacated Big Ten Tournament title in 1998. According to Harris, tomorrow’s game will be an indication of Michigan’s chances to advance deep in the tournament.

“The first game will tell you a lot in a tournament,” Harris said. “If you go out and perform well in the first game, it gives you confidence. You just need to get a win under your belt.”

Big Ten Honors: The Big Ten released its postseason awards yesterday, and Harris was named to the Honorable Mention All-Big Ten team. Harris is having a career season, achieving career highs in points, assists, rebounds and steals this season. In addition, junior co-captain Graham Brown was named Michigan’s sportsmanship award winner.

Illinois’s Dee Brown was named Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, Illinois coach Bruce Weber was Coach of the Year and Indiana’s D.J. White was Freshman of the Year.


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