NEW YORK — A thundering “Beat Ohio” chant filled Madison Square Garden on Friday night during the final 30 seconds of Michigan’s 71-57 win over Kansas State in the Preseason NIT championship game.
As one might expect on the final weekend of any November, the Wolverines fan base is mentally locked in on the football team’s rivalry game against unbeaten Ohio State on Saturday — and little else.
But after the annual showdown with the Buckeyes has passed, someone’s going to have to remind the Wolverines faithful that they have a pretty good basketball team, too. Because John Beilein’s No. 4-ranked squad is one of the best in the country, and it proved it against two solid programs this week in Manhattan.
“When you go to the University of Michigan, you work at Michigan, you talk about championships a lot, and being champions,” Beilein said Friday. “So whenever we have a chance to do something like this, we embrace it and go for it like there were no other games in the season.”
After getting all it could handle from Pitt in the semifinals on Wednesday, Michigan put on a clinic in the title game against the Wildcats. The Wolverines took a 10-3 lead early in the first half and opened the second half with a 22-6 run that gave them a commanding 21-point lead with 10:41 left to play.
Tim Hardaway Jr. led Michigan with 23 points and seven rebounds before leaving after taking a knee to the head in the second half. Sophomore guard Trey Burke, who briefly flirted with leaving for the NBA last summer, added 10 points against K-State after scoring 17 against Pitt.
Hardaway, the son of former NBA guard Tim Hardaway, has rebounded nicely as a junior after failing last year to build on a stellar freshman season, averaging 18.2 points per game so far. After the game, a Wolverines trainer said Hardaway had passed the team’s concussion test, and Beilein said he appeared “fine.”
“The biggest thing is his work ethic; that doesn’t just happen,” Beilein said of Hardaway’s development. “He’s got great DNA, but DNA doesn’t get you there alone. You have to have great work ethic like his father did, and that is the big thing.”
Added Burke: “It opens up everything for us (when Hardaway plays well), because the defense is no longer worried about the pick-and-roll action; they’re no longer worried about outside shots and things. They have to worry about Tim getting to the basket, him coming off screens.”
Burke and Hardaway may be Michigan’s biggest stars, but they’re neither the only contributors nor the only guys with some name recognition on the Wolverines’ deep roster.
Glenn Robinson III, the freshman son of ex-NBA All Star Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson, had nine points and 12 rebounds against K-State after contributing 13 points against Pitt, and sophomore big man Jon Horford, brother of Hawks center Al Horford, scored six points in 17 productive minutes off the bench on Friday.
Two other freshmen, Nik Stauskas and Spike Albrecht, have also come in and played well in their reserve roles, helping Michigan make up for holes left following the departures of Zack Novak, Evan Smotrycz and Stu Douglass, all productive veteran leaders on last year’s team, a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.
“Last year, Novak and Douglass were so important for them, they were the glue guys,” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said. “They were the guys that made the difference for them. Now they’ve got a little different team, and you’ve got to give credit to (Beilein).”
Before and after games, all of the Michigan players wear shirts that say “WE ON” (officially standing for “When Everyone Operates In-Sync”). The team also created a fuse box in the locker room, and before every game, each player flips their switch as another act of symbolism. The shirt and the fuse box were intended to unify the team and get the players focused on a common goal, and so far it looks like they’re getting the message. The Wolverines’ 1-3-1 zone has been on point, they’ve been crushing opponents on the boards, and their transition offense has been a thing of beauty.
A Preseason NIT title isn’t exactly a sign that a team is destined for greatness, but it’s hard not to feel optimistic about what it means for Michigan, which justified its top-five ranking as it prepares to face No. 16 North Carolina State on Tuesday.
However, Beilein doesn’t want his team resting on its laurels after a couple impressive wins, and the sixth-year coach was careful to differentiate between proving something and simply taking a step forward. Once the Wolverines put N.C. State in the rear view, they’ll have to start preparing for a challenging conference slate that includes No. 1 Indiana, No. 3 Ohio State, No. 15 Michigan State and Wisconsin (ranked in the coaches’ poll).
“Our expectations are (that) my guys are going to play hard and smart every day,” Beilein said. “That is the only thing we expect, and all they should care about. But because of the physicalness of both Kansas State and Pitt, that was important that we were heading in the right direction.”
If the Wolverines continue on the path they’re on, it could lead them straight to the Final Four in Atlanta — and hopefully by then, their fans will have taken notice, too.
“You have to go prove it again,” Beilein said. “(Opponents are) not going to care if we won this championship. … The season is a marathon, (and) this is maybe the first 400 yards or something of that marathon. But we ran it well.”