Michigan won the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament on Sunday, capping a four-game run to the finish by beating Wisconsin, 71-56, in Washington, D.C. It comes on the heels of a season in which Michigan wasn’t that good and a week that started with what could’ve been a devastating plane crash. Now the Wolverines are champions.
Their plane to Washington last Wednesday was blown off the runway in Ypsilanti, Mich., causing a scare but thankfully no debilitating injuries. The Wolverines arrived in Washington a few hours before beating Illinois by 20 points in their first-round game on Thursday, which they had to play in practice uniforms.
Then the No. 8 Wolverines kept winning: by four points in overtime against top seed Purdue, by seven against No. 4 Minnesota, and then in the final against No. 2 Wisconsin. They were the lower seed in the last three games.
Michigan was an underdog, not because of its travel nightmare but because of its season before that. The Wolverines were 10-8 in Big Ten play in the regular season, and they spent much of the year looking like a fringy NCAA tournament team. But they turned things on a bit in the last month of the regular season, and they should head into the Dance with tons of confidence.
The championship game came down to Michigan’s efficient offense. The unit’s been one of the best in the country all year, even as the defense has often lagged. Against Greg Gard’s elite Wisconsin defense, Michigan shot 55 percent from the field. Veterans Derrick Walton Jr., Zak Irvin, and D.J. Wilson had strong scoring afternoons, and Wisconsin’s offense didn’t have the juice to keep pace with them.
The Big Ten had a weird, mostly bad year. It didn’t have a single elite team, with the possible exception of the Purdue team that lost its first tournament game to Michigan. It didn’t have a serious national player of the year candidate, and it often felt like there was no difference between the second- and eighth-best teams in the league. After this tournament, it’s still hard to peg the NCAA prospects of so many.
But none of that’s on Michigan. The Wolverines were an ordinary Big Ten team with a great offense in a down Big Ten year, and they emerged when nobody else did. This four-game tournament run should go down as one of John Beilein’s most impressive coaching jobs yet in Ann Arbor.
Conference results don’t mean anything in the NCAA tournament. But I wouldn’t want my school to play Michigan later this week, and I suspect you wouldn’t, either.