Back in December, the Daily basketball beat looked at how Michigan’s season had gone in the nonconference portion of the schedule.
With the eighth-seeded Wolverines preparing to head to Charlotte on Friday to take on Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament’s second round, here’s another look back — this time, exmaining the conference season:
MVP: Tim Hardaway Jr.
Michigan’s guard, the son of the former NBA great, played well for a freshman during the first half of the year. But during conference play, it seemed a light turned on for Hardaway Jr. — suddenly he became an offensive force, capable of taking over games for the Wolverines.
Hardaway’s real breakout game came Feb. 6 at Penn State. He played just three minutes in the first half because of foul trouble, but scored all 13 of his points in the last seven-and-a-half minutes of the game to lead Michigan to a comeback victory.
Since that game, Hardaway Jr. has averaged 19.1 points per game, with nearly every opponent praising his play after each outing. He even managed to steal some of the spotlight away from fellow freshman Jared Sullinger of Ohio State. Sullinger won or shared 11 of the first 13 Big Ten Freshman of the Week awards — Hardaway Jr. won the next three.
Turning Point: Jan. 22 win at Michigan State
The Wolverines were at their lowest point of the season after the Jan. 15 loss to Minnesota at home. It left the team at 1-6 in the Big Ten and was Michigan’s sixth straight loss, destroying the momentum it had built up after a hot start to the year.
The then-15th-ranked Golden Gophers won by just five points, but Michigan played uninspired and without cohesion — its frustration was evident.
But following a pivotal team meeting, the Wolverines regrouped and headed to East Lansing to take on rival Michigan State. Michigan hadn’t defeated the Spartans at the Breslin Center since 1997, but it pulled off a huge 61-57 upset win after junior guard Stu Douglass’s 3-pointer with 22 seconds left sealed the game.
The victory gave the Wolverines the confidence they sorely needed, and it showed — the team went on to win eight of its next 11 games to lock up an NCAA Tournament bid.
Key Change: Douglass’s ascension to starting lineup
For most of the season, Michigan coach John Beilein started three first-year players at the same time — Hardaway Jr., redshirt freshman Jordan Morgan and freshman forward Evan Smotrycz.
But Beilein made a change before the Feb. 9 game against Northwestern, moving Douglass into the starting lineup, switching Novak back to the four position and putting Smotrycz on the bench.
It worked. The Wolverines have come out with much faster offensive starts with Douglass in the lineup. Each player involved in the switch has actually struggled somewhat since the move, but the offense overall has functioned much more efficiently — and Smotrycz has evolved into a decent defender at the five position, despite never playing there before.
Best Game: Feb. 23 against Wisconsin
This one wasn’t pretty — games with the Badgers never are. But the matchup came down to the last possession in a game that had huge implications for Michigan’s tournament resume.
With 30 seconds left, sophomore point guard Darius Morris headed to the free throw line with a chance to seal the win — but Morris missed the front end of his 1-and-1 attempt.
After a series of Michigan fouls, Wisconsin had one last chance to win the game. Hounded by a double team, star point guard Jordan Taylor lofted a pass to freshman Josh Gasser, who banked in a 3-pointer as time expired to give the Badgers a 53-52 victory.
Biggest Win: Big Ten Tournament Quarterfinal against Illinois
As it turns out, the Wolverines probably would have received an NCAA Tournament bid even if they had lost to the Fighting Illini. But at the time, conventional wisdom said Michigan needed a win to ensure its place in the tourney.
Down 12 points with just over eight minutes to play, it appeared that the Wolverines would be sweating out Selection Sunday. But they buckled down on defense, allowing Illinois to score just four points the rest of the way.
Michigan’s late-game charge gave the team a 60-55 win, essentially clinching a return to the NCAA Tournament — something nobody expected before the season.