As multiple chances to control its destiny were wasted and an opportunity to win a share of the Big Ten title slowly fell off the rim at Crisler Center on Sunday, the Michigan men’s basketball team is headed to Chicago a day earlier than expected.
The sixth-ranked Wolverines (12-6 Big Ten, 25-6 overall) finished fifth in the conference with their loss to Indiana, meaning they’ll have to win four games in four days to claim the Big Ten Tournament title.
And that road runs straight through teams that Michigan has struggled with all season: Penn State, Wisconsin and Indiana.
Fifth-seeded Michigan faces 12th-seeded Penn State (2-16, 10-20) in Thursday’s second game — the third time the Wolverines have faced the Nittany Lions since Feb. 17 and the first time since Penn State upset Michigan in State College two weeks ago.
“(Penn State) is a whole different team than it was early in the season,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “Six of the last seven games, they’ve shown they can beat anyone. They’ve played us twice very tough, they all but beat Wisconsin the other night, they went to Northwestern and won and they had Illinois on the ropes as well.
“This is a team with seven guys that have been playing together, they have a great chemistry right now.”
In the teams’ first matchup, Michigan had a difficult time pulling away from the Nittany Lions, hanging on for a 79-71 victory. Sophomore guard Trey Burke had a career-high 29 points — 15 coming in the second half — in the game to help the Wolverines hold onto their lead.
Just 10 days later, Michigan was stunned as the Nittany Lions came back from a 15-point deficit for their first Big Ten win. Penn State guards Jermaine Marshall and D.J. Newbill led its second-half comeback, scoring 42 of the 84 points in the win.
According to Beilein, Marshall epitomizes Penn State’s late-season surge. The Nittany Lions have had to deal with the loss of their star player, Tim Frazier, to injury, and though it’s taken them a while to finally congeal as a team, Beilein sees Penn State as a team ready to upset any opponent in the tournament.
“You can see (the improvement) in the backcourt,” Beilein said. “Newbill was not a point guard. It took him a while — he was turning the ball over — now he’s finding the guys. His assist-to-turnover (ratio) is great. He and Marshall — they were shooting 28 percent the first time we’ve played them — they’ve shot 50 percent from 3-point (range) the last five games.”
While Penn State is gaining momentum — its two conference wins have come in the past two weeks — Michigan has faltered down the stretch. After starting the Big Ten slate with an 8-2 record, the Wolverines have gone 4-4 while losing heartbreaking games against Wisconsin in overtime and at the end of regulation against Indiana, either of which would’ve given them a share of the Big Ten title.
The game against the Hoosiers was probably the toughest pill to swallow. Michigan watched its championship hopes fall away as redshirt junior forward Jordan Morgan’s shot bounced off the rim and dropped to the floor.
Morgan especially had a difficult time letting go of that loss. But after watching “Space Jam” to get his mind off the game, he’s refocused his mind and has a positive mindset heading into the tournament — something he says the entire team has embraced after Sunday’s heartbreaking game.
“We still feel like we’ve got some fight back,” Morgan said. “We’ve lost a couple games recently, but we’ve started to get a little more passionate about things, see the value in some of the smaller things.”
And now, with the Wolverines as a five seed after being one of the favorites to win the conference, Beilein hopes his team has refocused and found a new drive to win.
“I hope we go out with a chip on our shoulder every game, trying to show that we’re as good a team as anyone in the country,” he said. “This particular tournament in Chicago for the first time … I expect, based on our Northwestern crowd, to have great Michigan support. That’s going to be important for us. I think once we get in it, into the atmosphere, we’re focusing on one game at a time — Penn State.”