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March 1, 2014

All-Time High

It was the best of times, it was …

Well, that's where the line ends for Michigan basketball. Two championships in three years, no asterisks, no strings attached. The Wolverines clinched the second Saturday with a 66-56 win over Minnesota in front of a raucous home crowd at one of the nation's finest hoops facilities - and then promptly celebrated like they'd won $5.00 on a scratch off lottery ticket.

There's unfinished business, after all, and two more chances to finish it and claim an outright championship.

Who'd have predicted any of this 15 years ago? Basketball was such an afterthought that Crisler Arena lighting wasn't even to NCAA standards, creating an orange-ish hue when they showed highlights on television. Some lights in the upper reaches weren't even turned on to hide the throngs of empty seats.

Tommy Amaker helped return respectability to the program during his tenure, but the sleeping giant that was Michigan basketball remained in its slumber until head coach John Beilein and his staff arrived. There were moments, but they weren't championship moments - players, but not those who were prepared to go get it when they needed it.

There was plenty of all of it against the Gophers, and it came to a head with just over four minutes remaining. U-M hadn't played particularly well, struggling with uncharacteristically bad turnovers. Fifth-year senior Jordan Morgan had left his hands in the locker room, fellow big man Jon Horford was struggling on defense and what might have been a laugher turned on a botched 3-on-1 that resulted in transition points the other way.

The Gophers chipped away at an 11-point deficit to cut it to two, and with just over four minutes remaining, the win to clinch at least a share of the title following Michigan State's loss to Illinois seemed in jeopardy.

And then came what Minnesota coach Richard Pitino called "the play of the game." Morgan refused to let an offensive rebound get away from him, tying it up for a held ball that gave the Wolverines possession. It was more a 40-60 ball than a 50-50, but Morgan wasn't going to be denied.

Sophomore Spike Albrecht, playing down the stretch for the second straight game, then saved the ball with a hustle play, finding Morgan for a tough finish off the glass that pushed the lead back to four.

"Today it was the intangibles that aren't measured in the stat sheet," Beilein said. "The 50-50 Jordan got, what Spike did, the charge Jordan took … it was a terrific job by guys getting things done.

"[That sequence] was huge. You could see that one was going to come down to big shots for us or them. Whoever did was going to win the game. When you keep possession, that's what keeps them from getting that shot. And then Spike made the big one that got us some separation."

The "big one" was a three-point dagger with just over a minute remaining that pushed the lead back to 10 and brought the crowd to its feet, but his driving lay-up amongst the trees moments earlier, with the shot clock winding down, was just as critical. Point guard was a question mark when Trey Burke left for the NBA, but between Albrecht and Derrick Walton Jr., there's plenty of gas left in the tank - enough for a title for one of the Big Ten's youngest teams.

On a night when the 1989 National Champions were honored and adopted the 2013-14 team to do something they never did - win a Big Ten title - the Wolverines did it with defense, clicking on that end when the usually reliable offense sputtered.

Good teams find a way, after all, and on Saturday night they gritted one out. They'll hang a third banner in three years as a result, with the hopes of another one (or two) following the NCAA Tournament.

For years, we listened to analysts scream about the sleeping giant that was Michigan. "There's no excuse for Michigan to not be good," some would say, conveniently choosing to ignore the questionable antics that got others they lauded to the top.

It takes something special to win the way Beilein and his staff have won in today's college basketball climate. It's almost miraculous to be a year-in, year-out contender, but that seems to be where the Wolverines are today.

"They're such a good offensive team, and they make you pay," Pitino said. "If you go under a screen, Nik Stauskas will hit a shot. I've gotta give them credit - they're a really good team, one of the best in the country. They're young; they're talented. I told every guy in that [handshake] line, 'Go pro, get out of there.'"

Some might, the way Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. did last year. But will it matter?

Probably not.

One of the hardest things to do in sports is change a culture, especially when playing against a stacked deck, but Beilein and his staff have done it, and the expectation is to compete for titles year in and year out. Those who leave now can't wait to come back and support the team, and as former captain Zack Novak tweeted following Saturday night's win, "Those who stay …"

Well, you know the rest.


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