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March 4, 2014

A Night to Remember, but not to Share

"There will be no "co-" in Big Ten Champions.

Many coaches have probably echoed those words behind closed locker room doors over the years. Few, if any, did it with the same conviction of former Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler following his team's 34-31 win at Ohio State in 1988. Those were the hated Buckeyes on the other sideline, after all, and it was an emotional win after the Wolverines had blown a 20-0 halftime lead.

Schembechler's speech came only two years after Bill Frieder's basketball team won its second straight outright Big Ten championship, one of the golden eras of Michigan hoops. Twenty-eight years passed - 28 - before a U-M basketball coach would have the opportunity to repeat Schembechler's words.

The circumstances, however, were a bit different when John Beilein's Wolverines took the court in Champaign to face Illinois. They had two chances, not one, to clinch the outright championship, with a home game against Indiana still on the schedule, and Illinois - despite having shown recent improvement - wasn't the '89 Flyin' Illini.

It was clear early in Tuesday's contest the game with the Hoosiers would be the gravy. The Wolverines suffocated the Illini early, bombing triples from everywhere and playing like a team on a mission. Sophomore Nik Stauskas and Zak Irvin combined to go 7-for-8 from long range in the first half on the way to a team record 16 threes in an 84-53 win.

There wasn't much for anyone in orange to cheer about from the opening tip, though a mini-run before the half woke at least a few people up. But with the Wolverines up 49-30 and the clock winding down - amid chants of 'USA! USA!' from the few in the Illinois student section who still gave a damn - Stauskas swept the leg. The Canadian hit a 25-footer at the buzzer before turning and staring down the handful of perpetrators with a "this might by your country, but this is my house" glare that lasted about as long as the game's suspense.

Twenty uneventful minutes later, the Wolverines celebrated an outright Big Ten title by sharing the trophy in the locker room.

"I felt pretty good today," Stauskas understated in his postgame interview on the court. "The bucket felt like a lot bigger than it normally is, and my teammates did a great job finding me today.

"As a shooter, this is just one of those things that comes and goes sometimes. You just try to capitalize when it's going good."

Good? Try unbelievable. Stauskas' stroke has been reminiscent of former U-M forward Glen Rice's in the 1989 National Championship run, and if it continues, the 2013-14 Wolverines will have a legitimate chance to make a run of their own. With former point guard Trey Burke tweeting his approval (at one point insisting Stauskas was "NBA ready NOW"), they knocked down triples at a 69.6 percent clip (16-for-23).

"We were very good today," Beilein said. "We've had some good games, but not like that. We shot the ball well, defended well, played together and took care of the ball. I'm pleased with the win under these circumstances. Illinois' last three games went very well. To score like we did, defend in the second half - that was the key."

The Illini came in having held four straight opponents under 50 points for the first time since 1947. The Wolverines had 52 at the half, or six more than Michigan State managed all game in a home loss to the Illini Saturday.

"I haven't seen that in practice, even," Beilein admitted of the offensive outburst.

For all the similarities between Beilein and Schembechler, though - and there are several, from the intense preparation and attention to detail to an intolerance for mistakes - the occasional outburst like Schembechler's following the OSU win isn't one. Beilein humbly accepted the Big Ten Championship trophy, quickly passed it to team captain Jordan Morgan and watched with a smile as his kids took turns passing it and posing with it.

"I think we've had a great bond from the very beginning," he said during his postgame radio show. "We lost some really good people to the NBA, five seniors last year. Now we came together, whether it was scout team or Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan in new roles after Mitch [McGary] got hurt. It wasn't difficult at all being on the same page. We are coaching every day in practice - we never have to coach effort too much."

The coffee will taste better in the morning, Beilein admitted, and he and his staff will take a day off to savor the feeling. There won't be any chance of a letdown against the Hoosiers, he insisted, noting Indiana has won the last three against the Wolverines. And though he'll never admit it, IU head coach Tom Crean's antics in last year's regular season ender can't sit well.

For one day, though, Beilein will allow himself to savor the enormity of the accomplishment.

And then?

"Then we move on," he said. "We'll be the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, and this should give us a good seed in the NCAA tournament. If we continue to play like we did tonight, we can have a lot more fun."

Perhaps even hang another banner or two before it's all said and done.




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