The students were on spring break Saturday in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but that didn't stop them from coming home early to create a hostile atmosphere against rival Michigan State. The Michigan basketball team responded, playing with the mentality that this game had to be won.
For the first time since the '96-'97 season, the Wolverines have taken both games from Sparty in the regular season.
Michigan started fast with a 14-3 lead and never relinquished the lead all game. However, it didn't all come easy for Michigan. From 8:16-5:33 in the second half, the Wolverines went cold and MSU narrowed their lead to 3.
Kalin Lucas put the team on his back in the second half, sensing that Draymond Green and Durrell Summers weren't playing their best basketball. Lucas took nearly every shot down the stretch and hit some big threes. He just didn't do quite enough.
Michigan won this game without their usual array of 3-point shots, going just 5-19 from beyond the arc. However, Michigan got their key production from role player Evan Smotrycz who converted on some fast break opportunities in the first half. Smotrycz finished with 14 points. Tim Hardaway Jr. led Michigan with 20. Darius Morris was a little off, shooting just 3-11, but still scored 13.
That's the beauty of these Wolverines.
It's why they're different than the Manny Harris teams of old. When one of the big parts of Michigan's offense isn't producing, there are role players that will step up. Today, Stu Douglass and Zach Novak combined for 68 minutes of game time and put up only eight combined points (all of which were Novak's), but other players stepped up on offense.
The real story was on the other end of the floor. The Wolverines played great defense, creating a number of fast break opportunities for themselves.
After this big victory, the question remains, what do the Wolverines have to do in the Big Ten tournament to make it to the NCAA tournament?
The answer, in my eyes, is nothing.
An opening round victory would make a ticket to the dance almost certain and selection Sunday a lot less stressful, but Michigan has shown that they are a tournament team already. Of course, you always want to protect yourself against some unlikely automatic bids in conference tournaments, like Georgia in 2008, that take away spots from bubble teams.
Michigan has lost 12 games this year, but those 12 have been close. Only 3 of Michigan's losses have been double digit losses compared with fellow Big Ten bubble team Michigan State's seven double digit losses (not that I need to compare the two teams any further, as the two Michigan W's speak for themselves).
Their current 57 RPI isn't tremendous, but it certainly isn't going to kill them. The Big 12 bubble teams, Nebraska, Baylor, and Colorado all have RPIs in the 70s. Michigan's strength of schedule (22) is also very good. The non-conference wins against Harvard and Oakland are looking better every day, and the Big Ten conference is probably the best conference outside of the Big East.
Then, there's the factor that Michigan is red hot. While other teams are trying to limp into the tournament, Michigan is stating its case with an 8-3 record down the stretch.
Today's victory over Michigan State cements the Wolverines as the best team in the state and puts them in great shape to be playing in the NCAA tournament. The team picked last by some in the conference is looking for an opportunity to surprise even more.