They were a preseason No. 2 team. They were returning three starters and had the preseason Big Ten player of the year in senior Kalin Lucas. They were coming off an NCAA Tournament Final Four appearance. They were going to contend for the National Championship.
Michigan was a preseason nobody. A team devoid of star talent. A team that saw no postseason last year. A team nobody saw as a threat during the preseason this year. They were going to contend for respect.
Who could have expected that the Michigan men’s basketball would not only sweep Michigan State during the 2010-11 season, but beat the Spartans 70-63 in a game with NCAA Tournament hopes on the line?
The Wolverines (9-9 Big Ten, 19-12 overall) led by as many as 14 points on Saturday, but like most Big Ten conference games, it came down to the final five minutes, when Michigan led by just four.
The Spartans (9-9, 17-13) used a mix of defensive pressures to try to get themselves back into the game. Lucas cut the lead to four with a minute and a half remaining after he drained a 3-pointer following a time out. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo promptly called another time out and the Spartans set up in a full court man-to-man press.
Freshman Tim Hardaway Jr. drew the foul and made his way to the free throw line, where Michigan was extremely productive on the day — scoring 23 of its 70 points from the charity stripe.
Hardaway Jr. provided the offensive explosion in the second half after being hit in the head during the first. He scored a team-high 20 points, after going 0-for-3 from the field in the first half.
“We felt like we were giving it our all in the first half and we weren’t executing well and we were getting turnovers,” Hardaway Jr. said. “So we just wanted to make sure we came out in the second half and played tough.”
But he was not the only Wolverine to struggle from the floor in the first stanza. The team shot just 18 percent from 3-point range in the first half. Regardless of the shooting struggles, Michigan held an improbable eight-point lead heading into the break.
With Hardaway Jr. and junior guard Stu Douglass, who played despite being sick, scoreless in the first half, the Wolverines had to rely on a few other sources, including freshman forward Evan Smotrycz, who scored nine first-half points coming off the bench.
After redshirt freshman Jordan Morgan got into foul trouble midway through the second half, Michigan coach John Beilein moved Smotrycz into the five spot to face up against Michigan State’s 6-foot-8 junior forward Delvon Roe.
But on the defensive end, it was Michigan’s weakside help defense that forced the Spartans to take low-percentage shots and helped the Wolverines force 10 Michigan State turnovers.
Even with the size disparity in the post throughout the game, the Wolverines outscored the Spartans 26-20 in the paint. But Michigan State hit the glass harder, outrebounding Michigan by 16.
With the Wolverines’ win, Michigan is in a four-way tie for fourth place in the conference, but due to tiebreakers, it will play as the No. 4 seed in the Big Ten Tournament. It was, arguably, the Wolverines’ most pressure-driven game of the year. But Michigan held its composure in front of a soldout Crisler Arena.
“We knew what was on the line with sweeping Michigan State and the Big Ten implications — rankings and the Big Ten Tournament and stuff,” Douglass said. “You can’t deny that you knew that as a player, but we tried to approach it the same as every game.”
And while the team has proved it was able to move on from its continual close losses, the No. 5 seed in the Big Ten Tournament and the hype of a rivalry — one that had seemed stale for so long — proves the resilience of Beilein’s squad.
“At the beginning of the year we had good success, in the Big Ten (season) we hit a rough patch but we all knew what we were capable of,” Douglass said. “When we got a win we weren’t getting on our knees and thanking the heavens, we knew what we were capable of, competing with anybody.”
But after Michigan lost to then-No. 12 Wisconsin on Feb. 23, many assumed the Wolverines’ tournament bubble hopes had finally popped, predicting that the young team had finally hit its final straw.
“It’s the coach’s job to get them to move on,” Beilein said after the game. “We’ve had so many close games just like this one this year that we didn’t get. We’ve won a lot of games that were just like this, so we’re .500, but the one’s you remember are the Kansas game and the game with Wisconsin. You can’t let them hang in there — you have 30 games.
“You have to move on.”