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Michigan Cuts Down the Nets in New York

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Purdue vs Michigan Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

With seven minutes left in Michigan’s Big Ten Tournament final against Purdue, the Wolverines had the Boilermakers on the ropes. Sophomore extraordinaire Carsen Edwards, who had been terrific all tournament but struggled mightily against Michigan, drove the ball to the basket. Edwards’ drives usually lead to layups or thunderous dunks, but Michigan “sharpshooter” Duncan Robinson leaped and swatted his shot.

On the other end, Michigan’s own stud sophomore Zavier Simpson, one of the best eight best players in the tournament himself, drove the ball to the basket. He drew behemoth Isaac Haas with him, who somehow feels vertically misrepresented at 7’2” and nearly 300 pounds. Jon Teske, Michigan’s mini behemoth at 7’1”, was drunk off adrenaline in his own right for having the game of his career. Teske caught the pass, two took steps to gather himself and slammed it down over Haas, who fouled Teske in the process. The scoreline read Michigan 66-48, 6:02 to play. They probably should have just ended the game.

Michigan eventually finished the job, closing out the Boilermakers 75-66 en route to their second consecutive Big Ten Championship. The aforementioned Teske was the best player on the floor for large stretches, and finished with 14 points in 21 minutes of action. Perhaps equally impressive was his starting center, Moritz Wagner, who poured in 17 points in 17 minutes. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman continued his excellent Big Ten play, knocking down three three-pointers for 14 points, while Simpson was stellar again for 10 points, five rebounds, five assists and only two turnovers in 34 minutes.

It’s hard to put into perspective how good this Michigan team is really playing right now. After surviving a scare against a defensively inept but talented Iowa team on Thursday, Michigan faced off against a Nebraska team desperate for another big win. If you ventured into the volatile #Nebrasketball section of Twitter, Husker fans clamored that their 13 Big Ten wins (despite only one good win) were enough to see their team through to the NCAA Tournament. A win over Michigan would probably prove enough to do just that.

In the regular season matchup, Isaiah Roby was a thorn in Wagner’s side, only allowing Michigan’s star to finish with two points. On Friday, Wagner had Michigan’s first eight points, including two three-pointers, and finished with 20 points compared to 16 for Roby. Abdur-Rahkman was clinical in his shooting, knocking down all five three-point attempts to finish with 21 points. Zavier Simpson had four two-pointers and four free throws to snag his 12 points, and while Duncan Robinson continued his hot shooting and made it seven made three pointers through two games at MSG. Michigan only had made field goals from those four guys, but the stifling defense held Nebraska to 58 points.

Michigan’s quarterfinal win propelled them into another matchup with Michigan State, one of the hottest teams in the country but a team that Michigan had already beaten earlier in the year in East Lansing. The Wolverines raced out to a 13-4 lead, pumping up the crowd with seven points from Simpson and six from Charles Matthews. The Spartans settled in, and ended up taking a 29-26 lead into the break. Wagner played his worst half in quite some time, unable to knock down a single field goal while forcing far too many three-pointers.

Then he settled in. Beilein called his number early and often, getting Wagner seven quick points to open up the second half all inside the arc. The Wolverines got back-to-back-to-back triples from Abdur-Rakhman, Robinson and Wagner to extend their lead to 48-42, but Michigan State was able to keep the game within six or eight points for most of the second half. Another Abdur-Rahkman three with just under three minutes to go put Michigan up 62-54 with just under three minutes, and Michigan survived the free throw parade with a Duncan Robinson and-one to upset the Spartans once again.

Saturday’s win set up the trilogy against Purdue, with the first two games going the way of the Boilermakers by a total of five points. Michigan’s gameplan was to let Haas get whatever he wanted down low, and hope the single-team would force Haas to shoot rather than get open shooters on the perimeter involved. This worked quite well, as Haas finished 9-12 with 23 points, but Purdue’s shooters never really found a rhythm. Carsen Edwards finished 4-16, Vince Edwards was 2-6, Dakota Mathias was 4-11. Purdue is at their best when these guys can space the floor and knock down clutch shots, but they only made four three-pointers.

For Michigan, they were able to make to make a consecutive four-games-in-four-days run, knocking off three of the four top seeds in the tournament and avenging losses to the only teams in conference they hadn’t beaten, Nebraska and Purdue. This team finishes the post-BTT season at 28-7, and will almost certainly be a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament.

The Wolverines are finally getting hot at the perfect time, and their rotation is rounding into postseason form. Three guys I didn’t mention that are in this nine-man rotation are Jordan Poole, Isaiah Livers and Jaaron Simmons. Poole is the biggest wildcard of the three, as he has immense offensive talent but can shoot himself out of a game (1-9 against Nebraska). He played 16 solid minutes of defense and made all three free throws on a fouled three-pointer against Purdue, but it’ll be tougher to give him minutes given how well Matthews and Abdur-Rahkman are playing right now.

Livers has seen his minutes dwindle due to the late season resurgence of Duncan Robinson, but he remains the starter and is effective as a corner three-point shooter and finisher around the basket. He tweaked his ankle against Purdue and only played eight minutes, but I expect him to be completely healthy for the first NCAA Tournament game. Simmons actually didn’t make a shot during the entire Big Ten Tournament in 25 minutes of play, but he didn’t turn the ball over either. That second part is crucial, as Simpson will continue to play 30-35 minutes a game, but Simmons’ ability to spell him for two to three minute bursts will be tremendously valuable.

Overall, Michigan now waits a week to determine who and where they’ll play their first game in the NCAA Tournament. If Michigan does end up locking up that top-four seed, they’ll be the favorites (on paper) to reach the second weekend. There’s a few teams that could be a potential matchup problem, but given how well the Wolverines are shooting and defending as a team, they’ll be one tough out come next week.