One down, two to go.
All season, members of the Michigan men’s basketball team have talked about championships. Having already accomplished their first championship goal — the Big Ten regular-season title — the Wolverines will begin a new pursuit in Indianapolis on Friday when they kick off play in the conference tournament.
“We’ve still got goals ahead of us,” said senior guard Zack Novak on Monday. “(Winning the conference tournament) was one of the goals we had since the beginning of the season. We’re going to go there with all we got.”
Added Michigan coach John Beilein: “It’s really important that we go in there with that mindset right now that, ‘Alright, this is another step.’ You want to really have a great season? Go win a Big Ten Tournament Championship, because you don’t have to share that with anyone.”
Having received a first-round bye, Michigan will square off with No. 10 seed Minnesota (6-12 Big Ten, 19-13 overall), fresh off its upset over Northwestern on Thursday.
The Wolverines have had almost a full week of rest. Beilein said Monday that the early portion of the week would be dedicated mostly to rest and recovery, while the latter part would be spent preparing for both the Wildcats and Gophers.
Beilein said the team would prepare equally for both potential opponents because both teams pose different problems. Northwestern’s intricate offense is tougher to scheme against, but Michigan hasn’t played Minnesota since Jan. 1, so the game plan needs to be reinforced.
“Minnesota seems like it was a year ago, so that’s where I’m going first in my scouting,” Beilein said. “(In practice), it’s going to be very difficult to duplicate Minnesota’s athleticism, their shot-blocking ability, their speed and quickness.”
The Wolverines and Minnesota met just once this season. In that contest, the Golden Gophers jumped out to a quick 6-0 lead, but thanks to a breakout game from freshman point guard Trey Burke, who scored a career-best 27 points, Michigan won, 61-56.
Minnesota trailed the entire second half, but managed to cut its deficit to one point, before squandering a chance to take the lead with a shot-clock violation that occurred with less than 70 seconds remaining.
The Gophers are led by junior forward Rodney Williams, who leads the team in both points (10.9) and rebounds (5.5), but will likely be without their top low-post presence. Senior center Ralph Sampson III — who averages 1.3 blocks per game — is expected to miss the entire tournament with a knee injury he suffered earlier this week in practice.
Minnesota’s overtime win over the Wildcats was sparked by the return of junior point guard Julian Welch, who missed the final two regular season games with a hip injury. Normally a starter, Welch came off the bench to score 11 points Thursday.
Michigan (13-5, 23-8), meanwhile, has been playing perhaps its best basketball of the season lately. The 13th-ranked Wolverines have won six of their last seven games, closing out the regular season with back-to-back victories on the road.
The emergence of two previously slumping sophomores, guard Tim Hardaway Jr. and forward Evan Smotrycz, propelled Michigan to wins at Illinois and Penn State. The duo combined to score 58 points in the wins.
After shooting below 30 percent from long range for most of the season, Hardaway Jr. shot 7-of-10 from deep, while Smotrycz shot 4-of-5 from 3-point land.
With its two most dangerous scorers producing at such efficient levels, Novak believes Michigan can pose a serious threat to take home the tournament crown in Indianapolis.
“When they’re clicking like that … it felt like we were getting good looks,” Novak said. “I think we’re very dangerous. Just with how deep we go, and obviously when we’ve got those guys making the shots that they were, it just makes us harder to guard.”
Should the Wolverines win on Friday, they’ll advance to play the Ohio State-Purdue winner in Saturday’s semifinals.