The fire was evident in freshman big man Mitch McGary's eyes from the moment he first stepped foot on the floor Thursday at Chicago's United Center. Head coach John Beilein had turned to him early with redshirt junior Jordan Morgan struggling - such is the beauty of competition - and McGary wasn't going to let the moment pass without impact in Michigan's eventual 83-66 win over Penn State in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
When he grabbed his seventh (eighth, maybe. Ninth?) rebound of the first half, this one in traffic, he let out a barbaric YAWP! that caught the attention of his teammates and stoked the embers in their eyes.
None more than his freshman teammates, assistant coach Jeff Meyer said, and particularly Glenn Robinson III, McGary's roommate and good friend.
"He looked at me on the bench when he did that," Robinson recalled with a laugh. "I'm just cheering him on, glad to see him do well."
Sophomore point guard Trey Burke was the leader and catalyst, Meyer noted, keeping it together when the Wolverines fell behind 14-3. With Morgan struggling, however, and junior Tim Hardaway Jr. passing up open triples after losing some confidence in his long ball, he needed someone else to step up
McGary responded with the best half of his career. He cleaned the glass and, despite missing a dunk following an open floor steal, recovered with a number of tough finishes.
Soon, frosh Nik Stauskas started draining threes and Robinson III, who spent much of the first half crashing the glass for touches instead of rebounds on offense, picked up the defensive intensity with two quick steals to open the second half.
"They saw their fellow freshmen going and that's what brought Glenn along, Nik along, even Caris," Meyer said. "They said, 'let's play. Let's go!'"
Even McGary's heroics, a first half double double (10 points, 11 rebounds) couldn't give the Wolverines a comfortable lead, however. U-M gave a nine-point lead away just before the half, settling for a two-point advantage at the break after rushing things and failing on the defensive end. For all of its struggles this year in a two-win, Big Ten season, Penn State - for whatever reason - seemed to create match-up problems for the Wolverines.
Burke struggled again at times with Penn State's D.J. Newbill, who continued to take him off the dribble. The Nittany Lions ran their ball screen action extremely well in the first half, with big man Sasa Borovnjak cleaning up on the inside with "different stuff," Beilein said.
"Maybe I'm stupid, but we haven't seen a lot of that action that they're running right now" he said.
"They hurt us a little bit," Meyer added. "But [in the second half] we were better prepared defending that ball screen. When you continue to guard the same action over and over, you get to a more comfortable level with help and recovery. The kids did a better job as the game played on of defending."
The confidence carried over to the other end, where the Wolverines made 14 of their first 20 shots in the second half. They found their smiles by the end when the end of the bench mopped up what was left of the Nittany Lions, prepared for the second leg of their 'Big Ten Revenge Tour' tomorrow against Wisconsin.
None of them have forgotten the last meeting, an improbable Badgers win in overtime.
"I think it's important for us to go out there and have fun," Burke said. "At the end of the day, I think that's when we're our best when we go out there on the court and are having fun."
Win three more and the No. 6 Wolverines will be a two seed at worst in next week's NCAA Tournament, potentially even a one depending on what happens in conference tournaments around the country.
That's when the fun really begins.
McGary's offensive performance wasn't overly surprising to Beilein, who traded a wink with his talented big man after one of McGary's better exchanges.
"I think it's very similar to his game. It's developing," Beilein said. "He has got a lot of potential, as we all can see, and he's trying to become more efficient with his game. He's trying to become more efficient with his leadership, with his practices, with all the things that could make him a very, very talented player and, frankly, when his basketball career's over, make him talented at anything he wants to do in life, because he's so blessed.
"That's what I'm winking to him about, because he's got a load of potential in more ways than just basketball. As long as Brady Hoke stays away from him, he's got the potential to do anything. And Brady is messing with him right now."
"I'm just kidding."
Wisconsin's miracle victory over U-M in Madison, fueled by a half courter before the buzzer by Ben Brust that sent it to overtime, hasn't been forgotten. Revenge alone won't be enough to get the Wolverines past the Badgers, Beliein said.
"One thing that you can expect is the same old winning, don't beat yourself style that we have seen over and over again," he said. "We're the victim of two buzzer beaters against them as well as about 10 of shot clock time over the six years I've been coaching against them.
"They're not going to beat themselves. They're going to have big guys. You're not going to get too many offensive rebounds. They're going to stay very tight with their formation. We're going to have to make shots. We're going to have to make tough shots.
"On the other hand, we're going to have to be very patient on defense. They're not going to turn it over. Be very patient with our defense and solid with our defense. Make them score over us, without giving them second opportunities."
The Wolverines tied the Big Ten Tournament record for fewest turnovers in a game with four. They share the record with three other teams (Purdue-2011; Indiana-2003; Wisconsin-2000).
Michigan gets its first-ever win over Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament, improving to 1-2. It was the 13th time this season Michigan has put 80 or more points on the board and the seventh time against a Big Ten opponent. The Wolverines improved to 29-0 under head coach John Beilein when scoring 80 or more points.
The Wolverines have won their first Big Ten Tournament game in seven straight seasons.