Michigan didn’t just save the Big Ten from complete embarrassment during the opening weekend of the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
The Wolverines also offered real hope that the conference could be represented on the Final Four weekend. At the end of a four-day stretch where eight of nine conference teams lost in a series of inconsistent performances, the Michigan No.1 clinched an 86-78 victory over No.8 LSU in the second round. from the Eastern region Monday evening.
Consistency always counts for something.
The Big Ten regular season champion will make his fourth straight trip to the Sweet 16. The only school with a longer streak is Gonzaga – the tournament seed – with six.
How important was the victory of the conference? If Michigan had lost, the Big Ten would have missed Sweet 16 for the first time since 2006. The Big Ten’s other best programs all followed in quick succession in the first two rounds.
The No.11 Michigan State lost a play-in game to UCLA. No.2 Ohio State lost to No.15 Oral Roberts and No.4 Purdue lost to No.13 North Texas in first-round narcotics.
Illinois No.1 – the Big Ten Tournament champion – lost to No.8 Loyola Chicago on Sunday, and No.2 Iowa was kicked out of the ground by No.7 Oregon Monday afternoon. Wisconsin’s No.9, Rutgers No.10 and Maryland’s No.10 were also eliminated in the second round.
The “Just Like Football” comparisons have started, and in the least flattering way possible. It felt like another New Years slaughter. The validity of the Big Ten’s strong regular season was torn apart, and the dominant thought was that these teams were running out.
Leave it to the school that takes the brunt of this football criticism to save basketball, at least for one more weekend. The Wolverines did this, unlike football, by sending their game back to the face of the SEC.
LSU was a very upset choice, especially considering that Michigan did not have a senior Isaiah Livers, who suffered a stress fracture in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. The Tigers led by nine points in the first half and it didn’t look certain the Wolverines would be able to keep up with a high-profile offense led by future NBA first-round pick Cameron Thomas.
Michigan responded with a well-balanced performance from its major players. Eli Brooks, who was hampered in the Big Ten Tournament by an ankle injury, hit five 3-pointers and finished with 21 points. Chaundee Brown added 21 points off the bench, and Franz Wagner and Hunter Dickinson scored 15 and 12 points respectively. Mike Smith had a night’s rest, but the Wolverines won a top-down affair that felt like a second weekend game.
Can Michigan support this without livers? That was the big question entering the tournament knowing he was providing 13.1 points and 6.0 rebounds per game, not to mention his intangible leadership qualities.
Kevin Johnson, Livers’ replacement in the starting lineup, gave energetic minutes. Brown will have to give the same boost on the second weekend. Brooks has hit 8 of 14 by 3 points in two tournament games, and that hot shot needs to continue. Dickinson and Wagner must avoid trouble to keep the pressure on Smith. That’s a lot of ‘ifs’, but the Wolverines are able to make it to the Final Four for the third time since 2013.
The Big Ten can’t complain at this point. The conference still faces a national championship drought that stretches through 2000. At least there is hope.
Michigan is still in the fight thanks to sophomore coach Juwan Howard, who played two National Championship games and an Elite Eight game with eventual National Champion Arkansas as the Wolverines player from 1991 to 1994. L ‘stage wasn’t too big for him at the time, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Wolverines are the team that stepped up the most unpredictable first weekend in history amid the pandemic COVID-19.
They are built for it. Michigan was the Big Ten, that team that had a COVID hiatus of almost a month and closed the last two weeks with five games in 11 days. A loss to LSU would have presented a much more difficult narrative, but the conference now enters the second weekend with a 7-8 record.
At least Michigan is in the Sweet 16, right?
This will be remembered more than the record at this point, another valuable lesson that has proven its worth every year.
Consistency always counts for something.