STATE OF MADNESS
TAnn Arbor he numbers keep growing, gaudier and gaudier. The possibilities keep mounting, higher and higher.
Michigan is 17-0, the best start in program history, and 31-1 in nearly a year. You can’t ignore the records, although John Beilein wouldn’t mind if you did. The second-ranked Wolverines beat Northwestern
80-60 Sunday night at Crisler Center, and they’ve been running so smoothly, the biggest challenge might be handling the hype.
Actually, it’s a state-wide epidemic, with No. 6 Michigan State (15-2) also unbeaten in the Big Ten, riding its own 10-game winning streak. The Mitten state is transforming into a college basketball mecca, and while it won’t ever top football in popularity, it’s way ahead in possibilities at the moment.
March Madness? Sure, in a couple months. Right now, it’s Mitten Madness (copyrighted!).
It’s not quite Tobacco Road connecting Duke and North Carolina, but it’s the best it’s ever been around here. Michigan and Michigan State are both ranked in the top six for the first time in the AP poll’s 71-year history, and ESPN bracket expert Joe Lunardi has both slotted, for now, as No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
It’s astonishing when you consider it. On a cold Sunday night in Ann Arbor, where the Crisler stands used to be half full, the place was packed to the top row, not to see middlin’ Northwestern, but to see a little slice of Michigan history. It wasn’t a fair fight, as the Wildcats were missing leading scorer Vic Law due to
injury and the mood was celebratory from the opening tip.
The Wolverines attacked like they generally do, from all directions, from the defense outward. It began with rapidly emerging junior center Jon Teske alternating dunks and 3-pointers, before point guard Zavier Simpson took the spotlight. When Simpson stole the ball and swept in for a layup with three seconds left in the first half, Michigan was on top 50-28 and the crowd was on its feet and roaring.
That’s crazy talk
Michigan and Michigan State are so clearly the best teams in the Big Ten, it makes you think hallucinogenic thoughts. Like, could both be 16-0 in the conference when they meet for the first time Feb. 24 in Ann Arbor? They meet again March 9 in the regular-season finale in East Lansing.
OK, that’s taking Mitten Madness to an extreme. No, the Wolverines and Spartans will not be unscathed until then. Too many tough conference road games ahead.
But Izzo has the type of team he loves, with a savvy, sharpshooting leader in Cassius Winston and an array of players focused on defense, not on starchasing.
And Beilein also has the type of team he loves, pretty much like the team that went all the way to the NCAA championship game last spring.
That group lost to Villanova, the only setback since a 61-52 defeat at Northwestern on Feb. 6, 2018. Gone from that team are Moe Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur Rahkman and Duncan Robinson. In their place: Super smooth freshman Ignas Brazdeikis, and larger roles for Jordan Poole, Isaiah Livers and Teske.
“Knock on wood, we’re like a no-maintenance type of team,” Beilein said recently. “It’s a purposeful way we recruit, to get a kid that’s gonna embrace this thing, that it’s all about the team. It’s not something we have to preach. Do we have to teach it? Yes, but we don’t have to preach it.”
A new basketball culture definitely has grown here, and in similar ways — with dissimilar playing styles – it mirrors elements at Michigan State. Selflessness, defense, hype-averse.
After the Spartans beat Penn State Sunday, Izzo predictably downplayed it.
“Maybe we’re all talking too much about how good we are,” Izzo said. “We’re not that good.”
Tests yet to come
Beilein strikes a similar tone, refusing to count up victories or count out anyone. He notes the Wolverines have had a favorable schedule early in the Big Ten, and they have. They do play at Wisconsin on Saturday.
Poole is the flashy one who sometimes has to be corralled, but Beilein also gives him freedom to hunt for shots. Poole leads the team in 3-point shooting (.452) and gasp-inducing drives. Simpson and Charles Matthews do more of the dirty work, and happily embrace it.
After a recent game, Matthews stood in a corner of the press room and tried to slide unnoticed behind a blue curtain, while Poole chatted amiably across the room.
“We don’t pay any attention to our record or anything,” Matthews said softly. “It’s a team thing, and I don’t think this team is gonna dive into the hype.”
So what drives it? Matthews smiled. A lot goes back to the old “white-collar” label slapped on the Wolverines two years ago by an Illinois player.
“When I first got there, they called this team soft,” Matthews said. “Me and Zavier hated that, and we just said we’re gonna flip the switch and that’s not the culture we’re gonna have. That’s not the tag we’re gonna be remembered as.”
Guard Derrick Walton Jr. was one of the first to attack that mentality, and it’s been evident for a while now, with Michigan winning back-to-back Big Ten titles and reaching two NCAA title games since 2013.
The 2013 team that lost to Louisville was the last to start 16-0. Beilein practically blushes when he hears the numbers and the compliments, but opposing coaches keep coming into Crisler and leaving flabbergasted by what they experience.
After Michigan slugged North Carolina, Roy Williams gushed about how Beilein outcoached him. After Michigan slugged South Carolina, Frank Martin was effusive.
“Michigan has that championship DNA,” Martin said. “They played for the national championship last year and there’s no doubt they’re gonna compete at that level again. They don’t take plays off. They’re clean in everything they do, a credit to coaching.”
Michigan might not have the depth of 3-point shooters as a year ago, but it compensates with renewed defense and rebounding from guys like Teske. Michigan State doesn’t have the depth of stars as a year ago, but compensates with more disciplined team defense.
The coaches don’t want to hear it because January successes don’t always foreshadow March runs, and Mitten Madness is still kind of a new thing. But it’s rooted in sound basketball, excellent coaches and uniquely talented players. For now, savor the possibilities.
Jon Teske and Michigan are 17-0 after their dominant victory over Northwestern at Crisler Center on Sunday.
Zavier Simpson drives toward the basket past Northwestern forward Pete Nance. Simpson had 24 points in the Wolverines’ victory.