Two years ago Tuesday, Michigan won the Big Ten Tournament in Washington D.C. It was a joyous celebration to cap what had been a hectic weekend for the Wolverines that started with their plane skidding off the runway and ended with the team winning its first Big Ten Tournament championship since 1998 (Michigan vacated the 1998 title after NCAA investigations.) Less than one year later, Michigan became the first team to repeat as Big Ten Tournament champions since Ohio State went back to back in 2010-2011.
The Wolverines haven’t lost a Big Ten Tournament game since March 12, 2016, when an 8-seed Michigan team fell to 4-seed Purdue 76-59 one day after the Wolverines eliminated top seed Indiana where Kam Chatman hit the game-winning three-pointer as time expired in a 72-69 win.
“Some of our fondest memories at Michigan have been in this tournament where we have won big games,” said John Beilein via teleconference. “Indiana three years ago in a 1-8 game to put us in the NCAA Tournament. Then the last two tournaments winning eight in a row, that was pretty special too, so we would like to go win this and duplicate what we have done, but it’s gonna be difficult.
The Big Ten Tournament has felt like home for the Wolverines for the better part of the last three years and starting Friday, Michigan will try to become the first team in the 22-year history of the event to win it three consecutive times. Michigan’s roster is so young, no player on the team has ever lost in the conference tournament. Elder statesmen Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske are 8-0 in their BTT careers.
Michigan finds itself in different circumstances entering the tournament this year compared to years past. Before winning the 2017 and 2018 tournament championships, Michigan won its regular season finale before opening Big Ten Tournament play. After suffering a 75-63 loss at rival Michigan State Saturday that saw the Wolverines collapse in East Lansing while losing a share of the regular season title, Beilein’s bunch is hoping to rebound and make a statement in Chicago over the weekend.
“Michigan State did a great job against us, we lost,” Beilein said. “Now we gotta regroup and move on to the Big Ten Tournament, which we love.”
That love will be something that needs to permeate its way through the Davidson Player Development Center at Crisler this week if Michigan hopes to repeat as champions. The prominent word during post-game player interviews after the Michigan State loss was “poise” and how the Wolverines lacked it down the stretch.
“Coach B was emphasizing poise, poise, and we weren’t poised at all,” said Isaiah Livers following the Michigan State loss.
“Really we just gotta trust our gameplan” replied David DeJulius when asked how Michigan can regain its poise for the postseason. “Second half we didn’t trust our game plan, and we just have to know that our record (I think) is 26-5. We just have to know that we’ve had a great season and what got us here, we just have to continue to do that.”
The Wolverines face some different circumstances entering the Big Ten Tournament than they have in the past several years. Michigan has a double-bye for the first time since the 2013-14 season, meaning the Wolverines don’t tip off until Friday evening. The extra rest may prove useful, but Beilein cited concerns about facing a team (either No. 11 Illinois, No. 6 Iowa or No. 14 Northwestern) Friday that will have already played at least one (Iowa,) if not two games (Illinois, Northwestern) at the United Center before playing Michigan.
“You just gotta hope your team can come out there at the very beginning and the unfamiliarity with the court, the ball, the rims, everything, cannot get in the way of your performance,” Beilein said. “But it does happen. You watch those games all the time, the quarterfinal, and even the second round games, where people have not played. One of our toughest games last year in the whole tournament was Iowa after we had not played and they had; it’s not easy, you just have to go and plow through it.”
The Big Ten Tournament represents Michigan’s best remaining chance to hang a banner to commemorate what has been an overall excellent season in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines have won eight straight conference tournament games and are hoping that streak will be at 11 consecutive wins by the end of St. Patrick’s Day on Sunday. Since the 2016 tournament, Michigan is 10-1 in BTT games and has beaten the top seed three tourneys in a row, knocking off Indiana, Purdue and Michigan State.
There is a chance that if Michigan makes it to Sunday, the Wolverines may face the Spartans for the third time in less than a month. After two disappointing losses to Michigan State, it’s an opportunity some Wolverines are relishing.
“Of course. I would love another shot at them,” Livers said regarding a potential Big Ten Tournament championship matchup with the Spartans.
For Michigan, the third meeting with Michigan State could provide a flipped script of what happened in 2014. Michigan won the outright Big Ten regular-season championship that year and swept Michigan State home and away. The Spartans got an ounce of revenge in the tournament title game, beating the Wolverines 69-55 in Indianapolis. Both Michigan and Michigan State went on to fall just short of the Final Four that season, losing in the Elite Eight to Kentucky and UConn respectively.
The Big Ten Tournament has provided a springboard for Michigan’s NCAA Tournament runs the past two years. Michigan will take the court in Chicago Friday night looking to defend its BTT crown and regain some of the swagger that has helped the Wolverines amass a 15-2 record in postseason tournaments over the past two seasons.