Michigan Wolverines Take Incredible Journey to Brink of NCAA Tournament

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Michigan Wolverines Take Incredible Journey to Brink of NCAA Tournament
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Before considering what Michigan’s 70-63 win over Michigan State on Saturday means for their NCAA Tournament chances, ask yourself this:

Could you have ever imagined this prior to the season and especially six Saturdays ago?

On that afternoon, the Wolverines were dominated at home by Minnesota. They fell to 1-6 in the Big Ten. The team was a mess. The season wasn’t headed anywhere.

What has transpired since then isn’t short of amazing. Fueled by a players-only meeting, the Wolverines traveled to East Lansing five days later and shocked the Spartans, winning at the Breslin Center for the first time since 1997.

They’ve carried that momentum since then, winning seven of 10 games to finish the regular season 19-12 and 9-9 in the Big Ten.

The most incredible part? This is a young, inexperienced team.

You just don’t see this from freshman-dominated teams playing in such a difficult league like the Big Ten — easily the second toughest conference in the nation.

Maybe there is, but I’m having a difficult time thinking of a team that has grown as much as the Wolverines during such a short time period.

No victory has come easily to this young group — and many have had an ugly side — but the Wolverines have found a way to win ’em. Pulling out close games isn’t usually a trait of a green team, but these Wolverines got it done.

The close losses might stand out more because of their heartbreaking nature — the two-point defeat at Illinois; the shot-put 3-point buzzer-beater delivered by Wisconsin — but seven of Michigan’s wins during the streak have been by nine or fewer points, and four by four or less points.

This team knows how to win tight games.

Against the Spartans, the Wolverines were dominated on the boards (44-25), shot just 5-for-19 from 3-point range and missed the front ends of two, one and one opportunities at the free-throw line.

And they won by seven! There’s no way that’s the case early this season.

This is a complete team. They don't need to make a ton of threes to win — a central thought earlier this season.

They don't rebound very well — although it’s been much better than Saturday’s pitiful performance — but is made up by taking great care of the ball (despite the rebounding disparity, Michigan State took just 11 more shots and Michigan attempted 11 more free throws; the Wolverines had just seven turnovers).

Tommy Amaker’s biggest weakness as Michigan’s coach was his inability to develop players. They didn’t improve from game to game, year to year. That, clearly isn’t a problem for John Beilein. In fact, it’s his strength.

Just watch Tim Hardaway Jr., the player who has fueled Michigan’s late-season success. During the first two thirds of Michigan’s schedule, Hardaway was a talented player with horrible shot selection, buttery hands and an ineffective outside jumper.

Seriously. I know it’s hard to believe now, but I would cringe every time he attempted a three-pointer.

Against the Spartans, Hardaway was Michigan’s second-half offense. He scored all 20 of his points in the final 20 minutes and made the biggest play of the game, feeding Jordan Morgan for a dunk off a pick-and-roll after Michigan State cut its game-long deficit to 56-54 with five minutes, 48 seconds remaining.

The Spartans never got closer (although in typical Wolverines fashion, the game wasn’t decided, really, until the final 10 seconds).

Now, when Hardaway takes any shot, there’s no cringing. The kid’s a player and is only going to get better in Beilein’s system.

That’s the key. Every Wolverine is improving. Player development at its best.

They’ve learned how to play cohesive defense. They were abysmal during the 1-6 start to the Big Ten slate. There was miscommunication on the court. Players didn’t talk, and consistently left shooters open.

On Saturday, the Wolverines held the Spartans to 32.8 percent shooting. If they rebounded, they would have blown them out of Crisler Arena.

Did I mention they don’t win easily? Well, whatever. Bottom line: The Wolverines have developed into a tough, confident, NCAA Tourney-bound team (They could be in now, but beating Illinois in their first Big Ten tournament game would seal a bid).

This team has some swag. As Morris received the ball with a little over 10 seconds left in the backcourt, he shredded a pair of Spartans with behind-the-back moves, then seeing the lane wide open, took it to the hoop and finished things with a silky finger roll.

Necessary? Not at all. Classless? Perhaps.

But considering what this team’s accomplished in three fortnights, a little icing on the cake just seemed appropriate.

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