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UM shatters perception of one-trick pony 

03/20/2017, 12:56am EDT
By By DAVID BRIGGS BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Outside shooting far from the only thing keeping Wolverines going


Michigan guard Derrick Walton Jr. and guard Andrew Dakich celebrate following a 73-69 win over Louisville in a second-round NCAA Tournament game. ASSOCIATED PRESS

INDIANAPOLIS — After the electrifying latest chapter on the run of their basketball lives Sunday, Michigan’s players bounded toward their ringing cheering section and asked for the impossible.

More noise.

Next thing you knew, Bankers Life Fieldhouse — the scene of the Wolverines’ 73-69 upset of second-seeded Louisville — was physically quaking and the thousands of fans in maize and blue were singing the song of the dance.

”It’s ... Great ... To ... Be ... A ... Michigan ... Wolverine!”

Even some wearing a different shade of blue — Kentucky beat Wichita State in the second game here — joined along. Save for the pocket of Cardinals supporters, the whole place was on its feet, cheering what has become the unlikely feel-good story of the NCAA tournament.

Wow.

By the end, we felt like Bart Simpson in detention chalking his lessons learned on the blackboard.

■ I will never again question the late-season sorcery of John Beilein;

■ I will never again question the substance of Big Ten basketball;

■ I will never again question the beauty of the tournament.

OK, fine, we will. But if the Big Ten is down this year and this year’s tourney is boring — two popular narratives of the past week — then sign us up for more tedium.

A day after former Whitmer standout Nigel Hayes and Wisconsin put the madness back into March with a comeback win against defending national champion Villanova, Michigan continued the hysteria in another classic between Beilein and Louisville’s Rick Pitino.

By all rights, this should have been the day the dream ended for the Wolverines. The day the team that finished eighth in the Big Ten tumbled back to the hardwood.

This was just the game Michigan fans feared. Second-seeded Louisville was too long, too good, and if the Wolverines didn’t keep pouring in the deep balls at a historic pace, it figured to be a long afternoon. Well, the angst was confirmed. Michigan not only was outrebounded 24-16 in the first half but the Pitino-styled Golden State Warriors became the State Street Bricklayers. Two days after UM matched a Big Ten record for 3-pointers in a tournament game, it finished 6 of 17 from outside.

Yet the oddest thing happened.

The Wolverines kept coming, straight into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2014. They combated Louisville’s length with ... length.

Michigan beat the Cardinals at their own game, their versatile big men slashing through a Louisville defense bent on fortifying the arc.

With 6-foot-11 sophomore forward Moe Wagner scoring a career-high 26 points and 6-10 junior D.J. Wilson adding 17 — their biggest performances in breakthrough seasons filled with them — Michigan scored 16 of its first 18 points of the second half in the paint and kept coming. The Wolverines finished with 40 point-blank points.

Which is why, more than any game, they proved a team capable of extending this magical ride to inconceivable heights.

For those wondering if Michigan had merely snared lightning in a bottle with a radiant point guard (Derrick Walton, Jr.) and a scalding hand from long distance, here was your resounding answer.

A Wolverines team that has now won 12 of their past 14 games is something more.

Beyond the bombers and Walton, who reputedly left his cape at the team hotel but still finished with 10 points, seven rebounds, and six assists, they were a force inside. They were cool under pressure — that of Pitino’s defense (six turnovers) and the frenzied dying minutes of the game. They were the sort of team nobody wants to play.

“It just shows the versatility of this team,” Wilson said. “Our offense, it’s kind of like pick your poison. We didn’t knock down the 3. We worked, and we did other things to put the ball in the hole, and it was effective.”

“People think we’re just a 3-point shooting machine,” Beilein said.

Of course, people think a lot of things.

That wasn’t the only perception shattered Sunday. In a narrative that began with a series of losses in nonconference play and gained heft during the year, some of us wondered if Big Ten hoops should be relegated to Division II. The tournament selection committee sure did. They had so much respect for the league it slotted its regular-season league champion Purdue as a No. 4 seed and runners-up Wisconsin as a No. 8.

But it turns out seasons are not defined in December. The Big Ten has three teams remaining, more than the vaunted ACC.

“I thought we had a pretty good record, actually, as a league [in nonconference games], but it didn’t measure up,” Beilein said. “There’s always going to be a lot of hype about what teams are getting most hype early, and it just doesn't go away. I told everybody, ‘Just wait.’ The level of coaching in this league, the resources in this league, the level of talent in this league, it will come to the top at the end of the year.

“Moe, he averaged two points a game last year. He’s 19 years old. D.J. the same. There’s a process that people go through to develop their teams. It may have not showed in November, December. But it’s showing in March.”

And nowhere more than in Michigan.

Rarely has there been a greater time to be a Wolverine.

Contact David Briggs at: dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

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