ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan has won back-to-back Big Ten Tournament titles. Every player on the current roster is undefeated in Big Ten Tournament play with a spotless 8-0 record as the team has no four-year players. The Wolverines run of winning four games in four days the last two years is something that even coach John Beilein can’t explain.
“Everybody asks us what’s the secret to our success the last two years, I have no idea,” Beilein told assembled media Wednesday at Crisler Center. “Plane crash helped (in 2017,) you know just to loosen everybody up a little bit, play with nothing to lose but last year I have no explanation for that. That was an incredible performance, and I can’t tell you why.”
The Wolverines are looking for another incredible performance as the team will need to win three games in three days if Michigan is to become the first program in Big Ten Tournament history to win three straight titles. Ohio State fell one game short of doing so in 2012 when the Buckeyes lost the BTT championship game to Michigan State in Indianapolis. Michigan’s eight-game conference tournament win streak is currently tied with the 2010-12 Buckeyes for most consecutive tournament wins. With a win in the opener Friday, Michigan would be in sole possession of that record. For a Wolverines team that finished the regular season going 3-2 down the stretch, Beilein’s group is eager to get back on the court and rebound from Saturday’s 75-63 loss to Michigan State that saw the Spartans claim a share of the regular season Big Ten championship.
“After watching film, seeing what we did right seeing what we did wrong, definitely the edge is kind of back with us,” said junior center Jon Teske. “We practiced really hard these last couple days and are just getting ready for the tournament coming up.”
Teske announced his presence on the national stage in the 2018 Big Ten Tournament championship game, scoring 12 points in the first half against Purdue and Boilermaker center Isaac Haas as Michigan won 75-66 at Madison Square Garden in New York. Michigan forward and newly crowned Big Ten Freshman of the Year Ignas Brazdeikis is looking forward to his first taste of postseason play as a Wolverine.
“My high school career, playoff times, definitely nothing like this but I have had games where we have played a couple of game days in a row,” Brazdeikis replied when asked about his postseason experience. “EYBL, Peach Jam and all that, it doesn’t prepare me for something like this, but I definitely know the feeling of playoff and intensity. It’s nothing I can’t handle, or we can’t handle.”
For the Wolverines, it’s not that winning two straight Big Ten Tournaments puts a burden of expectation on them to win a third, but it does set the bar high. Michigan has been able to corral its success in the conference tournament in recent years and springboard off that into NCAA Tournament runs.
“I think the expectation is that we are going to compete for Championships,” Beilein said. “I don’t think the expectation is you’re a failure if you don’t win a Big Ten championship. Otherwise there would be a lot of failures. It’s an expectation that we’re going to hunt for that one. If we don’t do it, we’ve got to do more the following year.”
There were plenty of frustrating moments in Michigan’s loss to the Spartans Saturday that will help serve as motivation come Friday night, regardless of which opponent Michigan should face out of Iowa, Illinois or Northwestern. Junior guard Zavier Simpson, who prides himself on defense, had another frustrating outing trying to contain Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston. The Spartan junior scored 23 points (15 from the field) after dropping 27 in the teams first meeting.
“He is the most personal guy ever, he takes every matchup very personally, that’s why it’s painful for him,” Beilein said of his team captain. “He has guarded and will continue to guard the best point guards in the country and he has had a great success rate on that over his time at Michigan.”
Brazdeikis fouled out of the game against Michigan State with 5:10 left to play after scoring 20 points and proving to be Michigan’s biggest offensive threat of the game. For him and his fellow freshman, the coming weekend in Chicago provides an opportunity for them to leave their mark and perhaps ensure they see another banner raised to the Crisler rafters in a ceremony similar to the one Brazdeikis witnessed before his first home game as a Wolverine.
“I wouldn’t say we are jealous but just seeing them get their rings and seeing those banners get put up, it was like “Damn, we want that same exact thing,” Brazdeikis said of the pair of Big Ten Tournament banners. “That definitely motivates all of us and I feel like even the returning players who won that want another taste of that. Just seeing that happen and the happiness on everyone’s faces and everything motivates us to get that.”
The motivation is there for the Wolverines, but winning the whole tournament again will require fixes both offensive and defensively that the team could not make in-game during two losses to Michigan State, who Michigan could meet again in the tournament championship game should both teams advance to Sunday.
“One of the few good things about our loss from Saturday is it provided our edge back again,” Beilein said. “Watching that film was not good on Monday. There was thirty points we could’ve controlled in that game just by different decision making. We’ve learned a lot from that.”
Michigan will get a chance to show off what it has learned late Friday night at the United Center as the Wolverines try to improve their postseason tournament record (Big Ten and NCAA) to an impressive 16-2 dating back to 2017. The Wolverines are undefeated in Big Ten Tournament openers under Beilein (12-0) and Friday will mark the team’s first time opening the tournament with a double-bye since 2014. The Big Ten has been unpredictable all season long, but for the two-time tournament champions, the next four days (and looking beyond that, the rest of the season) are about surviving and advancing above all.