CHICAGO — Jordan Poole and Ignas Brazdeikis are the most enigmatic pair of players on Michigan’s roster. Whenever either of them makes a big play, you will see a broad smile appear on Poole’s face, Brazdeikis will make a money sign with his fingers or flex his arms after throwing down a dunk.
John Beilein famously exclaimed one year ago this weekend, that Poole hit his game-winning shot against Houston due to an “overdose of swag” and the rest is history.
“Just having swag is positive energy, and positive energy feeds off of and bounces off of everybody” Poole said postgame. “So being able to have positive energy from one person to the next to the offensive end to the defensive end it just shows how we play on the court.”
Michigan got plenty of swag-worthy plays from Brazdeikis (13 points, 5 rebounds) Isaiah Livers (21 points) and Poole (9 points, 7 assists) Saturday and overwhelmed Minnesota as the Wolverines march towards a third straight Big Ten Tournament championship will continue into championship Sunday. No. 3 Michigan defeated No. 7 Minnesota 76-49 inside the United Center, setting up a rematch with Michigan State for the tournament championship. Michigan seems to have rediscovered its March swagger just in time for its biggest game of the season so far.
Poole paced the Wolverine offense early, running hard in transition and converting three early looks inside the paint for a quick six points. Brazdeikis opened the game full of confidence, converting his first shot attempt for a three-pointer just 72 seconds into the game. Brazdeikis flashed the money sign, and fans in the stands flashed it right back at him.
“It felt really good from the start, especially hitting that shot,” said Brazdeikis. “It brought us into a rhythm, it brought me into a rhythm. We execute our offense really well and we’re feeling really good right now.”
The Big Ten Freshman of the year also made an impact on the defensive end of the floor. Matched against Minnesota’s walking double-double, forward Jordan Murphy, Brazdeikis recorded two blocks in the first half alone. The second block came after Brazdeikis and Murphy were tied up in the paint, Murphy attempted to shove Brazdeikis to get a shot off, Brazdeikis went up and contested the ball, and Murphy hacked Brazdeikis out of frustration to trigger the under eight media timeout.
“He’s strong as hell but I am just as strong. I try to prove that every single day,” Brazdeikis said regarding Murphy. “It’s just my hunger on the court and I felt like it got the team going as well.”
Poole and Brazdeikis also linked up for one of the best plays of the game: Poole stole the ball from Minnesota’s Amir Coffey and hit a streaking Brazdeikis in transition. All 6’7 216 pounds of Brazdeikis went up and threw the ball down with all his might as the Michigan fans in the United Center crowd roared with approval.
“I just love the idea that we shared the basketball. 20 assists again on two straight nights,” Beilein said post game. “We’re not a selfish team, but they don’t see the other open people until consistent video over and over again. Different people had different runs in the game and it’s always precipitated by good passing.”
The big plays were not just limited to Poole and Brazdeikis. Before taking a seat on the bench for the first time, Matthews delivered a block on Gabe Kalscheur. Livers was the beneficiary of an offensive rebound by Zavier Simpson after Simpson missed a three with five minutes left in the half, Livers drove the baseline and threw down a two-handed slam. Simpson completed a three-point shot after the Minnesota bench taunted the junior that he couldn’t make it. He looked back and stared towards the Gophers before going on to finish the day with three triples.
“I’m not sure I kinda just play, stay locked into the game.” said Simpson of the exchange. “That stuff comes with basketball so I am just trying my best to put my team in a good position.”
By the end of the first half, Michigan went from being tied with the Gophers at 13 to holding a 38-19 advantage. The Wolverines ripped off a 25-6 run to close the first half as the offense showed it did not take its foot off the gas pedal after comfortably beating Iowa the night before.
The second half produced similar results. Jon Teske threw down a dunk three minutes into the final period. Simpson made a pair of long triples. Livers scored 11 of Michigan’s 13 points during one stretch before going on to finish the game with a new career-high of 21, and Michigan hummed its way to another double-digit victory in the Big Ten Tournament. The offense hasn’t clicked like this for the Wolverines since non-conference play, and it adds further to the mystique of Michigan’s incredible run of success in the conference tournament over the last three seasons.
“I don’t even think about it,” Beilein said regarding the tournament win streak. “I will think about it one day I think but it would be nice to win 11. That would really be cool and so it’s something that we’re going to try and do our best at.”
The next challenge that awaits the Wolverines is the one team that has been unequivocally better than Michigan in their two meetings: Michigan State. In February, the Spartans mounted a valiant comeback against the Wolverines in Ann Arbor to collect a 77-70 win and end a three-game losing streak to their rival. One week ago, the Wolverines wilted in the second half after leading by 12 in the first half in East Lansing, as Michigan State won a share of the Big Ten regular-season title.
“It should be a good game, it’s a championship of the big ten so it will be a good game,” said Simpson of Sunday’s matchup. “If any of you (were to) lose a game, you would hope to win the next one right? That is kind of our mindset.”
The adage says it is hard to beat a team three times in one season. Based on what has unfolded so far in Chicago this weekend, expect the unexpected for Michigan-Michigan State round three Sunday at the United Center. The Spartans are the one thing standing in the way of Michigan and becoming the first team in Big Ten history to win three consecutive Big Ten Tournaments. If the Wolverines can continue playing their bold, brash, and effective style of basketball, something unseen in the teams first two meetings this season, Michigan should like its chances Sunday.
Rivals facing off for a trophy on St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago. What could go wrong?