MINNEAPOLIS — All season, the Michigan men’s basketball team has remained hopeful. In Saturday’s 67-64 win at Minnesota, that hope was pretty clear.
The Wolverines shed their traditional warmup shirts for white ones with the Spanish phrase, “Queme los barcos.”
Translated as “burn the boats,” the phrase was the mantra of 16th-century Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez, who led his small but mighty army against the Aztecs. Cortez allegedly burned his own boats, eliminating the means to retreat.
“We burned everything,” fifth-year senior guard C.J. Lee said with a laugh. “We were throwing everything at them to get a win.”
Against Minnesota, the Wolverines fought until the final buzzer. They competed with poise and confidence on the road to overcome a 12-point second-half deficit.
They will play this weekend in the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis. But No. 7 seed Michigan is in good position to garner an at-large NCAA Tournament bid, its first since 1998, even without a conference tournament run.
“When you get into March, in some way, shape or form you are about to play your last game, at some point,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “We don’t want to do that yet.”
Michigan is still fighting, but last March, most of the Wolverines could not wait for the season to end.
Last year, after a program-record 22 losses, Michigan’s season finished in Indianapolis.
There were no postseason hopes or lofty aspirations. Even a National Invitational Tournament bid was out of the question.
“We were at a different place,” sophomore forward Manny Harris said of last season. “We were playing to try to get better, make a miracle happen in the Big Ten Tournament and go to the NCAA Tournament. There wasn’t an NIT or anything.
“This year is different because we’re playing for something. There’s a lot more on the line.”
This time around, the Wolverines are more mature and better able to handle the pressure.
The younger players, who last March were only looking ahead to the summer and next season, now have praiseworthy postseason hopes.
Harris and junior forward DeShawn Sims have grown up in just one season. They took control of Saturday’s game when it mattered most. Along with redshirt freshman guard Laval Lucas-Perry’s 19 points, they accounted for 85 percent of Michigan’s offensive output.
“We just did a great job as a unit and doing some things in a more mature manner,” Sims said. “Not like we did last year. We were more mature in game situations.”
Sims pointed to shot selection and getting stops on defense as signs of the team’s growing maturity. A year ago, Michigan’s youth was obvious as the Wolverines learned Beilein’s system. The growing pains were evident from the inadequate shots, the five- or six-minute scoring droughts, and the inability to close out halves.
Now, it’s easy to forget last year’s 10 victories. After all, the Wolverines collected the season’s 10th win Dec. 29 against North Carolina Central — before conference play even began.
“That’s what you have to go through to become a better team,” Beilein said. “You need to. And you can have a growth mindset: ‘If adversity is going to make me better, or adversity is woe is me.’ At times we’ve had those issues, but at the same time, we’ve grown a great deal.”
Playing in March is guaranteed for all, but it becomes a privilege for just 65 teams. And like Cortez against the Aztecs, Michigan isn’t yet ready to retreat.