The Michigan Wolverines were involved in a frightening plane crash Wednesday. Their coach helped passengers off the plane; their starting point guard sliced his leg on the way off; and the team opened the Big Ten Tournament wearing practice jerseys.
Five days later, the Wolverines are Big Ten Tournament champs.
Eight-seeded Michigan capped off a four-day run with a 71-56 win over two-seed Wisconsin in Sunday’s championship.
Here’s what we took from the Wolverines’ impressive weekend and Wisconsin’s second-place finish:
What We Learned:
Michigan is scary.
It’s been said before and even more throughout the weekend.
A day after their plane crash, Michigan obliterated Illinois to open the Big Ten Tournament, bursting the Illini bubble and ending John Groce’s tenure as Illinois head coach.
Top-seeded Purdue got a very tough draw with its quarterfinal matchup with the surging Wolverines. Michigan knocked off the Boilermakers in overtime Friday then took care of business against a tough Minnesota team a day later.
The four-game stretch was completed with a win over Wisconsin Sunday, a game that Michigan controlled, gave up and controlled again to snatch the first tournament title in program history.
Michigan secured its title behind senior leadership, 3-point shooting and gritty defense. Those three things tend to lead to extended runs in March.
It’s easy to compare the Wolverines and the assets listed above to the Kemba Walker led UConn Huskies in 2011, and the hype is fresh after the weekend, but Michigan is rolling and, more importantly, confident.
Derrick Walton Jr. doesn’t want his Michigan career to end.
Speaking of Kemba Walker, Derrick Walton Jr. is leading the Michigan Wolverines. He’s an undersized senior point guard who does it all for the Wolverines.
He leads the team in scoring, assists and steals, and the 6-foot-1 guard is second on the team in rebounds.
His sense of urgency on the end of his Michigan career was apparent during the Big Ten Tournament on his way to Player of the Tournament honors. He averaged 20.5 points, 4.75 rebounds and 6 assists during the tournament, including a 29-5-9 line against Minnesota in the semifinals.
Leading by 3 midway through the second half against Minnesota, Walton scored 8 points in a stretch of less than two minutes as the Wolverines ran away with the win.
His injury required five stitches in his leg, but it didn’t slow him down.
Walton’s Michigan teammates have nothing but faith and trust in their leader, and his play on the court only makes the Wolverines even more dangerous.
We can’t ignore Wisconsin’s offense.
That’s not a good thing.
Wisconsin’s defense stands out, and it has for years. The Badges are active and physical, and Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes control the paint.
After Michigan shot 7 of 11 on 3s to start the game, Wisconsin’s length forced tougher shots and the Wolverines missed their next seven from deep. That helped Wisconsin cut a 10-point deficit to just 1 at halftime.
But Wisconsin struggled mightily on offense to start the second half.
The Badgers went 0 for 8 to start the half and didn’t score a field goal until a Happ layup at the 11:52 mark. While Michigan’s defense was good, Wisconsin missed a handful of layups and putbacks during that drought.
Michigan stretched the lead back to double digits as Wisconsin’s shots missed. And although the Badgers defense kept it close, it wasn’t as close as the score showed because they simply couldn’t put the ball in the bucket.
The Badgers only average 72 points per game, ranking them 193rd in the nation.
They’re going to need to consistently score more than they’re used to in order to keep up with team’s like Michigan that can fill it up in bunches. Too many NCAA teams have the offensive firepower to overcome Wisconsin’s defense prowess, so the Badgers will need to up the scoring themselves.
It’s tough to tell how good these two teams really are — or if they’re pretenders.
The Big Ten has been somewhat down this season, and the tournament bids will surely reflect that. So how does playing through that conference prepare Michigan and Wisconsin for the tournament?
Both teams have the senior leadership they need and strong defense. Michigan has the 3-point shooting to make a huge run, but they rely heavily on that long ball. Wisconsin needs to up its scoring altogether to make a long run in March.
They hype is surrounding the Wolverines right now. Will it weigh them down or propel them? Can Wisconsin add some consistency?
We’ll find out this week.