Michigan wins Big Ten tournament: Wolverines at it again with 2nd straight title
Might the Wolverines have a chance for a No. 3 seed after beating Purdue in the Big Ten title game?
NEW YORK -- It's possible the Big Ten tournament never gets held again at Madison Square Garden. If that winds up being true, Michigan will hold a special distinction as being the Big Ten's Big Apple forever champions.
For the second straight year the Wolverines will peal into the NCAA Tournament scorching hot, riding the steam off a captivating Big Ten tourney run.
The fifth-seeded Wolverines beat No. 2 Purdue 75-66 in Sunday's conference title game at Madison Square Garden. John Beilein has matched a league record with eight straight wins in Big Ten bracket play. The Wolverines have won nine straight overall, and at 28-7, have established themselves as a No. 4 seed at worst on Selection Sunday.
A soaked, chilled Beilein sat at the dais about an hour after his team completed the feat. This was no dry run for the tournament that matters most.
"I'm shivering up here," Beilein said. "I think I was doused with a couple gallons of the Hudson River. It was cold."
Yeah, they got the coach good in the locker room.
Calling this club a Final Four dark horse would be an insult to its profile and inevitable popularity in the big bracket to come. Michigan won't be on the top line but it's going to be a trendy pick for three or four wins in the Big Dance.
Seeding aside, this team's march through Manhattan over the past four days was beneficial to the Big Ten and Michigan's national profile. After a bizarre close affair with Iowa in the second round, the Wolverines looked elite against desperate Nebraska, denied second-ranked Michigan State, then shook normally steady Purdue. The Boilermakers beat the Wolverines by five total points in two prior meetings this season, but no evidence of previous success was found for Matt Painter's 28-6 team on Sunday.
This game was the kind of emphatic closing message the selection committee tends to reward when the field of 68 gets unsheathed. It wasn't just a win, it was a defense-oriented victory with blasts of big shots that created separation against a top-10 opponent. Bruce Rasmussen, who is the chair of the committee this year, was on hand in New York to witness greatness up close.
He also heard the "TES-KE! TES-KE!" chants from the overwhelming Michigan contingent on hand at the Garden. And what is Teske? Oh, just a 7-foot-1 backup center who played in only 31.1 percent of the team's minutes this season. Jon Teske is the breakout star of the title game. Nobody saw it coming; Beilein even admitted it. But against Purdue, by necessity due to the Boilermakers' two-tower deployment of Isaac Haas and Matt Haarms, Jon Teske played 22 minutes and put up 14 points.
An encore "TES-KE! TES-KE!" chorus from the lingering Maize and Blue crowd came when the kid they call "Big Sleep" stepped up to snip some net.
Michigan was tactically emphatic against Purdue, offering a main-stage reminder to the nation that this Wolverines team can win with physicality. Beilein'sthanks to embracing ball-screen defense with strong-willed players who have the athleticism to body up guards and wings. Purdue's inability to stop Michigan's ball screen offense was more than a deciding factor: it was what fractured the game against the Boilermakers.
"You always learn something when you play him," Painter said. "He's just very unique in that. You can't allow them to do what they want to do. And if you do, now it's just hitting or missing, especially when they put skill. His ideal thing is having a 5 that can shoot. That's why Teske's pick-and-pops, him going into the short roll into elbow, Wagner being able to make the 3s and drive the ball. He makes them special."
Wagner, who was on the floor only 17 minutes in the title game, won Most Outstanding Player. Eighth-ranked Purdue was getting 27.6 points from point guard Carsen Edwards in five games prior. He had 12 on Sunday.
Incredibly, Michigan had no turnovers at halftime and finished with only five.
The only downside to the day for Michigan was Isaiah Livers leaving the game early in the second half due to injury. He had a brace on his left foot. His status going forward is undetermined.
It would be an overreaction to dub this 28-7 run to the NCAAs as the best coaching job of Beiein's career. If anything, it's an affront to his prior achievements, like getting Michigan to the 2013 national championship game and turning West Virginia into a near-perennial Big East contender. But what Beilein has accomplished to this point with with this team qualifies as one of the signature examples of his coaching canniness.
Never before has he had a Michigan team win with a defense-first philosophy. This is no accident. Obviously Beilein and his staff recruit to their strengths. But in the physical Big Ten -- no league in the country is more tussle and bustle, and that's not always a good thing -- maybe Beilein knew he'd have to tweak, if not change up, his methods in order to stay in the chase both nationally in the conference.
Even if some of Michigan's makeup is happenstance, skill development is no accident. They are who Beilein wants them to be.
Plenty will be made about Michigan -- and Purdue, and other Big Ten teams who will sit even longer -- enduring nearly a fortnight before resuming previously scheduled programming. Painter told me too much is made of that stuff. It's an easy question and obvious topic. But it is an interesting thing to discuss because major-conference programs never wait this long before playing in the NCAA Tournament.
The Big Ten's decision was controversial from a geographic standpoint, but we know now that such an argument was a waste. Anyone that was in Madison Square Garden Thursday-Sunday will boast of, or cop to, the environment on display. The Garden never disappoints, and that kind of sentiment is probably just the boilerplate ideal that infuriates fans in the Midwest.
Doesn't mean it's not true, though.
"To play in this arena in front of that crowd, which was, I feel, was very pro Michigan, that's a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us," Beilein said. "So it will be worth the wait."
The Big Ten is almost certainly never doing this again, never holding its conference tournament a week before the other big leagues. Location is not the reason, but the calendar is. The Big Ten had a chopped up and accelerated league schedule. It was the only way to get all the games in and still play at MSG a week before the Big East takes up its usual residence. If the conference can return to New York City in the future -- potentially at Barclays Center, in a year when the ACC or Atlantic 10 don't have a contract in place to run concurrently with the Big East at MSG -- we now know there's a place in this city for the pride of the Midwest megabrands.
And before league commissioner Jim Delany shuts the door on any scheduling repeat of 2017-18, a conversation should be had about how much prominence and discussion the conference -- in a down year for the Big Ten, remember -- benefitted from getting the weekend to itself.
It's going to be 11 or 12 days before this extremely fun to watch, incredibly frustrating to play Michigan squad tips for another game. But don't let that abnormally long layoff ease you into forgetting how great this team looks now. Defense doesn't take vacations. The Wolverines this season, breaking from their typical personality trait of slick offense, have one of the best defenses in college basketball. It's why they won four games in four days at Madison Square Garden.
It's why Beilein has his best chance since 2013 of getting back to the Final Four.
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