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On Thursday morning, a few friends and I woke up early and made the blurry-eyed drive down south to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Tournament. Things looked very bleak for Michigan at the time: Kenpom’s log5 projection gave the Wolverines a 14% chance of reaching the semifinals – and a 14% chance of keeping their dwindling NCAA Tournament hopes alive for Selection Sunday. After Michigan squandered an opportunity to grab a much-needed quality win at home against an Iowa team entering its March meltdown phase, those odds felt even lower.
The Big Ten is still one of the rare college basketball conferences that seems to value its regular season championship more than the conference tournament title – it was one of the last leagues to even adopt the late-season competition. It’s a deeply weird atmosphere: the home of the NBA’s Indiana Pacers is a good venue, but seeing so many fans of different programs pack into the arena – seas of Indiana crimson streaked with Illinois orange, flashes of maize in sections of blue, supporters of almost all fourteen programs (no Rutgers, believe it or not) clad in team apparel milling around the concourse – is very disorienting. There are a lot of old people – and many more families with younger kids than college students in attendance. Every team has its band, which fill the stadium with chants, cheers, and energy far better than piped-in music ever could. A lot of Indiana fans show up to Indiana games in Indianapolis, vast hordes of middle-aged men in candy-striped pants.
In the two full days we’ve been here in Indy, we’ve seen six basketball games in person: three blowouts (Michigan State destroyed Ohio State in a classic root-for-the-meteor game in which you’re secretly glad that there probably won’t be a meteor, and two games – Purdue over Illinois and Maryland over Nebraska – pitted weak underdogs that had played 3 games in 3 days run out of gas against fresh teams with much more talent), Illinois’s upset over Iowa, which was somehow extremely baffling and completely predictable at the same time, and, most importantly, two critical Michigan victories. So far, our Big Ten Tournament experience has been a good one. I’m glad we went.
[After the JUMP, thoughts on UM’s Thursday and Friday in Naptown]
To get to the Indiana game – and I’ll talk about that game in a second, I promise – Michigan had to beat Northwestern, and even though the Wolverines had taken care of teams like the Wildcats all season, the great and mighty Alex Olah alone was enough to have some concern entering the tepid 8 / 9 noon tip. The arena was mostly empty as Michigan leapt out to a 16-3 run, though both UM and Northwestern had modest clusters of fans. After a pretty good half of defense and some hot shooting from Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson, Michigan led comfortably at half, but a 13-2 Wildcat run midway through the second half gave them their first lead with less than four minutes left. Surprisingly, there was considerable cheering for Northwestern, as the sections of purple rose to their feet for the first time all game and neutrals scattered through the crowd joined in.
At the time, it was the most exciting finish Michigan had experienced all year; their first overtime game was back-and-forth down the stretch and the consequence of losing compounded the tension. A beautiful dish from Rahkman to Donnal gave Michigan a three-point lead with a minute and a half left in regulation; two missed free throws late gave Northwestern a chance down two with the ball; Tre Demps missed a tough fade-away and Olah somehow converted a ridiculous tip-in from a distance away as time expired. Overtime provided more plot twists: NU grabbed a three-point lead with a minute left before John Beilein drew up a gorgeous set for a Robinson three – contested pretty well and shot while on the move – that tied up the game. Northwestern missed a shot, Michigan got the ball back with the shot clock off, and Zak Irvin nailed a very difficult game-winner.
The Wolverines survived, but would face the Big Ten champs, a red-hot Indiana team, in a de facto road game the next day. One must-win game down, another to get back into the Tournament conversation.
The other game in Session Two, Iowa – Illinois, was really good. Jarrod Uthoff and Peter Jok were like the only guys to score for the Hawkeyes (and Jok had the best shoes I’ve seen all tournament), the Illini knocked down far more threes than expected, and Iowa looked listless all game, until they went on a late run to tie the game. Malcolm Hill – an underrated player in the Big Ten in a sort of Sisyphean role for Illinois – hit a big shot, not too unlike Irvin’s, and Iowa was sent home early.
It was a really long day, so my buddies and I watched the evening games at the hotel.
* * *
We arrived downtown at a lot a few blocks from Banker’s Life Fieldhouse a little less than two hours from tip-off, and even then, Indiana fans swarmed the sidewalks. After fruitlessly looking for tickets in the area around the arena, we ate lunch and watched the first half of the game at a restaurant. With some haggling and a discounted rate, we got some tickets and went in at halftime. From there, it was an amazing experience: Michigan played its best game of the year and the second half was filled with high-level back-and-forth basketball as the Indiana fans roared around us and a familiar sense of creeping dread settled deep in the pit of my stomach, much stronger than usual. By the end – the very, very end – Kam Chatman had drilled a contested game-winning three and we Michigan fans had screamed and jumped around, high-fiving and hugging, in front of an absolutely stunned partisan crowd. Two days, two buzzer beaters.
Since it’s hard to consolidate my takeaways into a coherent narrative, a bulleted list:
Chatman deservedly got the headlines for his shot, but Duncan Robinson was crucial down the stretch – an old-fashioned three when Michigan was down 5 and a more customary splash from the corner down 3 put the Wolverines in range for the last-second Kam dagger.
Zak Irvin’s playing well in his hometown: 19 points, 8 rebounds, and 2 assists against Northwestern and 17, 5, and 2 against Indiana. Deep down, Irvin is a chucker at heart, and that’s perhaps why he’s Michigan’s go-to player; his combination of shot-making (where he seems to be more effective shooting off the dribble) with unorthodox form, willingness to be aggressive when Michigan needs scoring, and pick-and-roll ability as a four with excellent vision is enough to make him the #1 guy moving forward.
It’s been a bizarre tournament for Derrick Walton: 0-10 combined from the field in two games is terrible, but a Big Ten Tournament-record 12 assists against Indiana is awesome. I thought his defense on Yogi Ferrell was pretty solid.
Fortunately Rahkman has provided the points that Michigan hasn’t been getting from Walton, 29 points between the two wins. He’s been the best player in the five-man 2014 recruiting class, even though he was locked behind Caris LeVert on the depth chart until injuries forced him into starter minutes. Losing Caris was awful, but a small silver lining has been the emergence of MAAR.
Moritz Wagner outplayed Indiana’s future pro big man Thomas Bryant for stretches, giving Michigan his most valuable minutes on the season. Between Moe’s unanticipated offensive production, efficiency between he and Mark Donnal, and the surprisingly poor play from Max Bielfeldt on the other side, the Wolverines were able to consider the post battle a stalemate at worst. Needless to say, that was a surprise.
Both teams shoot threes well, but Michigan and Indiana combined to hit just 10 of 38 threes (26%) – and Kam Chatman buried one at the buzzer with a hand in his face. Kam Chatman! Sure!
Tom Crean’s decision to go with a “super small-ball” lineup during most of crunch time was fascinating: Troy Williams (probably a small forward) was the biggest player on the floor at times for the Hoosiers, who could switch everything without fear of being punished on post-ups. Michigan won, but didn’t exactly handle that wrinkle well.
I wonder if Beilein didn’t call timeout on that last possession because he didn’t want to give Indiana the option of subbing Bielfeldt out – Michigan successfully attacked him on the pick-and-roll, Wagner set a great screen, and Walton got enough space to force Hartman to help off of Chatman. Maybe some low key cold-bloodedness from Coach B towards the former Wolverine.
This win over Indiana will go down as one of Beilein’s most memorable at Michigan, and that finish was the best I’ve ever seen in person. Considering the context – it was the definition of a must-win game, it happened against the loathed Tom Crean, it happened in front of so many Indiana fans – this win not only does a lot to boost confidence in the program after a mostly rough year, but also provides a lot of schadenfreude in the “you wrecked our program” beef. I don’t know if Michigan gets in the tournament regardless of what happens today against Purdue, but Chatman’s winner was surely the highlight of the season either way.
So far, this trip to the Big Ten Tournament has been excellent. Let’s hope it lasts a little bit longer.