STATE OF MAD­NESS

The Detroit News - - SPORTS -

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.

Tony Ding/As­so­ci­ated Press

Jon Teske and Michi­gan are 17-0 after their dom­i­nant vic­tory over North­west­ern at Crisler Cen­ter on Sun­day.

BOB WOJNOWSKI

Tony Ding/As­so­ci­ated Press

Zavier Simp­son drives to­ward the bas­ket past North­west­ern for­ward Pete Nance. Simp­son had 24 points in the Wolver­ines’ vic­tory.

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