Big Ten race bringing out the best in U-M

Nobody wanted to talk about it prior to Michigan's Sunday game with Illinois - how big the following game could be, or that the Wolverines might have a legitimate shot at a Big Ten title with consecutive home wins (where they're now 14-0 at Crisler Center following a 70-61 victory over the Illini). But now it's real, and they're in position to accomplish something not even the 1989 National Champions or the Fab Five ever did.
Win a Big Ten title.
Glen Rice was a freshman the last time U-M won a conference crown. But with what some would call a manageable slate remaining (home (Saturday night) against Ohio State and Purdue, at Northwestern, Illinois and Penn State) and with the other contenders facing tough games down the stretch, Michigan will get its opportunity.
The dream stayed alive with Sunday's victory, one in which the bench came to life for the second straight game. The Wolverines will need the same from their shooters - junior Matt Vogrich went 2-for-2 in long range and sophomore Evan Smotrycz 2-for-3, scoring 12 points off the bench in the first half - to have a shot, but those signs of life make U-M a darkhorse-plus down the stretch, a game back with only five to play with one of the leaders coming to town.
"We really try to understand the season and the pace of a season - try to figure out the best way for your team to be good in February," head coach John Beilein said. "Usually if they're good in February, they're going to be good in March. You understand that, and it's also a great way to motivate your guys.
"[The bench] was all I talked about, because that has been badly needed that we have Matt come off with some swagger. He doesn't get many shots in a game … Evan, as well. If we get that kind of bench production, we can keep winning at a pretty high pace, so we needed that."
Especially when the Wolverines got into early foul trouble. Redshirt sophomore Jordan Morgan played only three minutes in the first half, picking up his first foul and going to the bench after a minute and a half. He received another foolish one early in the second, finishing with only 12 minutes.
Enter Smotrycz, whose slump after a lights-out start to the season had made him a convenient target for criticism. His lack of confidence caused a shift in the starting lineup to a smaller look, and he continued to struggle.
But something clicked this week, and it rubbed off. Sophomore Tim Hardaway Jr. (15 points, 2-for-3 triples) reported the scout team got the better of the starters for much of the week … and the starters weren't necessarily playing poorly.
"I liked Evan all week in practice. He didn't get much of a look at Nebraska, but he had energy, a good look on his face," Beilein said. "Matt, the same thing. So many times you don't face this adversity this much in your life as far as basketball. Stu [Douglass] had to go through it, Zack [Novak], so why can't Tim, Evan and Matt? It's going to happen. You've just got to keep pressing on and keep positive.
"Evan … didn't shoot the ball particularly well [in practice], but his energy was tremendous. I think he understands if things are going tough for you, a positive attitude is essential. He really had that this week. With one guy doing that, then another … we also had a great bench that keep practice light and keeps us challenged."
They're having fun with each other as a result. In his regular blog, seldom-used Josh Bartelstein wrote about catching Vogrich and friend Blake McLimans listening to Celine Dion music last week. His teammates let Vogrich hear it when a Dion song emerged over the public address system during the pre-game shoot-around.
"I like Celine Dion," a red-faced Vogrich said with a laugh during the postgame, insisting he wasn't angry with Bartelstein. "It was okay - it's cool."
And it kept Vogrich - whose shooting could help be the difference between first and fourth in the conference - loose. He provided eight points and one of the plays of the game when he drew a charge on Illinois' Meyers Leonard, sending the seven-footer to the bench for the better part of the first half.
U-M needed every bit of Vogrich's eight points and his hustle, which rubbed off after a slow start. Hardaway's early play, too, gave the Wolverines a shot in the arm, starting with his triple at 14:05 of the first half that gave them their first lead.
"I just didn't like the pace of that game. We needed something good to happen, and all of a sudden Jordan gets in foul trouble, but Tim hits a shot, Evan hits a shot and we had been waiting for that. We needed that," Beilein said. "It was like a shot in the arm, propelled our defense. We got a little bit of a lead and slowly increased that lead so we could get away from it at the end."
Illinois didn't go quietly, hitting tough shots in the first half and working the glass against the smaller Wolverines for a number of second-chance opportunities in the second. U-M led by six at the half (37-31), but it could just as easily have been 10 or more had they made a few easy shots.
But like they've done all year, they found a way. Novak contributed another timely triple to counter an Illinois second half run and snagged key rebounds down the stretch, freshman Trey Burke controlled the tempo, senior Stu Douglass was steady as ever on defense.
And for the second time in two games, the bench was also in tune. If the Wolverines felt good at where they stood before Sunday's game, they'll take even more confidence into the stretch run afterward.
"We felt really good," Beilein said. "You have two of your shooters with shooting stats like we had, and the team is 18-7 at one time. That was pretty good news. So spin it around …"
And you just might have a Big Ten champion.