MINNEAPOLIS — Tim Hardway Jr. is only a junior, yet already a seasoned, veteran leader for the young No. 5-ranked Michigan Wolverines.
Hardaway has played big games in the Big Ten. He’s seen the intensity and dealt with the emotion of conference road games. Many of his fellow Wolverines are dealing with the expectations that come with playing for Michigan for the first time. Even Trey Burke, a preseason All-American pick, is a sophomore.
So after the Wolverines lost at No. 15 Ohio State on Sunday, snapping Michigan’s 16-game winning streak to start the season, it was Hardaway who spoke with his teammates and got them ready for Thursday night’s nationally-televised game at No. 9 Minnesota, where they bounced back with an 83-75 win.
“It was a matter of having that mindset of being down by 10 as soon as you step off the bus,” Hardaway said. “We had that mindset throughout the whole entire game and we knew we were up 20 and it wasn’t over at the 15-minute mark of the second half. So we knew they were going to give it their best shot. We knew they were going to go on a run; it was just a matter of how we were going to handle it, and we handled it very well.”
Hardaway, who was only 5 of 15 in the loss at Ohio State, first led with words, then followed through in action. He had 21 points on 7-of-8 shooting with five rebounds, three steals, two blocks and three assists as Michigan won the first matchup of top-10 teams in Minnesota since the same two met in 1977. Burke added 18 points and nine assists for the Wolverines (17-1, 4-1 Big Ten).
Michigan, with Hardaway’s leadership, was prepared to handle the atmosphere. This is new territory for Minnesota, which was ranked as high as No. 8 last week — the highest ranking since before Tubby Smith became coach in 2007.
Was it a case of being nervous?
“It could have been,” Gophers forward Trevor Mbakwe said. “It was a big game, but I think once the ball gets in the air you realize it’s just another game and you’re just playing basketball. I don’t think nobody was really nervous. It was a six-point game at halftime even though we had eight or nine turnovers. That’s kind of been our theme for the whole season, so it’s kind of hard to say.”
Mbakwe, who had 13 points and 10 rebounds, has played big games in the Big Ten like Hardaway, but the senior forward and his teammates are in a new position with their lofty ranking and heightened expectations. The past two games, the Gophers haven’t shown they’re ready to handle the spotlight.
The Gophers (15-3, 3-2) didn’t learn from Saturday’s 88-81 loss at No. 2 Indiana, with Smith calling Wednesday’s practice “disappointing.”
“You practice the way you play and you play the way you practice,” Smith said. “We got one guy that comes every day and is going to give it everything he has in Austin Hollins. It’s not even close when it comes to the hardest worker. Not that the other guys don’t work hard, but they don’t come every day with the intensity that he shows, and that’s what’s disappointing.”
Hollins, a junior, had a team-high 21 points, hitting four 3-pointers. But it’s Andre Hollins who has led Minnesota’s rise. The sophomore guard played six minutes in Thursday’s first half due to foul trouble, then scored 10 of his 13 points in the second half and helped the Gophers close to within seven.
However, Michigan was the poised team late, learning from its experiences in Sunday’s loss. The Wolverines hit only two field goals over the final 9 minutes, 50 seconds, but finished from the free-throw line. They also forced Minnesota into 15 turnovers, 10 in the first half.
“When we shoot like that and we defend like that, we’ve been able to get away from people,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “We didn’t shoot like that. We didn’t defend like that against Ohio.”
The Wolverines learned their lesson, thanks in part to Hardaway.
“He’s got a presence on this team, both offensively and defensively, that is really making our guys go,” Beilein said.