As I was flipping through TV stations last Monday night, I came across Rece Davis and Digger Phelps discussing the NCAA Tournament on ESPN. When the topic of Final Four sleepers came up, Phelps picked Michigan.
The look of shock on Davis’s face was priceless, and he proceeded to laugh at his colleague.
And I was with Davis.
How could a Michigan team that hadn’t even beaten a ranked opponent be thought of as a team that could make noise in the tournament?
Shouldn’t it have to prove it could even make the tournament first?
Well, after Saturday and Michigan’s second straight big win, maybe it’s not quite time to have Phelps committed to an old folks’ home. This team appears to be for real, and others are finally taking notice.
Following Michigan’s 85-76 win against No. 23 Wisconsin, I sat and watched to see if students would rush the court like they did after the Wolverines beat Michigan State on Wednesday. They didn’t, and rightfully so.
It wasn’t an upset.
Forget the fact that Wisconsin entered the game in sole possession of first place in the Big Ten. It didn’t matter that Michigan hadn’t beaten ranked teams back-to-back in more than a decade. The better team won.
The win puts the Wolverines in unfamiliar territory – first place in the conference – and will surely bring them to another place they haven’t been since 1998 – the national rankings. When they come out today, I’ll be shocked if Michigan isn’t ranked at least No. 20.
The Wolverines came up just short in their first three chances to make a statement against a ranked team. Late turnovers killed them against UCLA. The absence of Lester Abram proved to be too much to overcome against Indiana. And a red-hot Dee Brown put an end to any hopes of getting over that hump at Illinois for the Maize and Blue.
Throughout this stretch, Michigan coach Tommy Amaker maintained that the team was just looking for a game to breakout. That game finally came last Wednesday. And if Saturday’s game was any indication of what this team will do for the rest of the year, Amaker was right. The team has broken out.
The stage was set for a team suffering from a Michigan State hangover to drop this game. Michigan was without Abram again for the fourth time in conference season. Daniel Horton struggled, going 2-for-10 from the field. And the two-headed monster of Kammron Taylor and Alando Tucker combined for 50 points for Wisconsin.
But all this withstanding, Michigan still won, and did so handily. It led from the first minute onward.
The difference was depth. Outside of Taylor and Tucker, the rest of Wisconsin’s team managed just 26 points. Michigan had four separate players score at least 14 points and played nine deep. Just eight minutes into the game, Michigan’s lineup consisted of Jerret Smith, Jevohn Shepherd, Ron Coleman, Brent Petway and Chris Hunter – none of which are regular starters.
The key with this Michigan squad isn’t just its ability to get everyone on the floor; it’s what the players do on the court that’s so special. All year long, an unselfishness that’s rarely seen at other schools has been on display. If one player is having an off night, he is more than happy to let someone else do the work. Michigan took it one step farther on Saturday.
Prior to Saturday’s matchup, Horton was telling Amaker that junior Courtney Sims needed to get involved in the game early. Since Sims had struggled through most of conference play, Horton felt it was his duty to get him the ball early. After the game, Sims attributed Horton’s unselfishness and determination to get him the ball down low early as the reason the center finally broke out with an 18-point performance.
Graham Brown also did his part to get a struggling Wolverine involved. He continually encouraged Dion Harris to shoot the ball while he was setting screens for the junior guard. And it paid off, Harris scored a game-high 23 points for the Wolverines.
It’s tough not to get too caught up in Michigan basketball right now. The campus finally seems energized, as evident by the second straight sellout of the week. The players seem excited, too – the buzzword in the locker room is swagger, and the players are showing a lot of that. And even analysts like Phelps are getting behind Michigan’s cause.
But before fans start thinking this team is invincible, it’s time to step back and take a deep breath. Yes, both wins this week were huge, but they were also both at home. The Wolverines have yet to pick up a big conference win on the road, and before that is accomplished, maybe this attention isn’t warranted.
So before we dub our buddy Digger the greatest prognosticator in the world, the Wolverines – just 1-2 on the road in conference play – need to consistently prove themselves on the road.
This week poses a great opportunity, with road contests against Penn State – which nearly upset Michigan State in East Lansing on Saturday – and Iowa, which will be looking to notch its 15th straight home win. If Michigan can play team basketball like it did Saturday, then another 2-0 week shouldn’t come as a shock.
And maybe Digger won’t look so crazy after all.