Poise will be a determining factor in crowning a champion in one of the tougher Big Tens in recent years, and for 20 minutes Thursday, Michigan didn't have it at home against Purdue. U-M rallied from a 33-32 halftime deficit to pull away for a 68-53 win that wasn't pretty, but didn't have to be.
That was head coach John Beilein's message to his team after the win, U-M's 18th against one loss. Things seemed to come easy when they were winning pretty in the first half of the season, but it's the teams that don't always swing for the fences that are more consistent.
The Big Ten is a grind, and the champion will have found a way to win ugly when it's all over.
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"It was [about] mental toughness," Beilein said of a second half in which the Wolverines held Purdue to nine points in the first 12 minutes. "As we play against better and better teams, which you're going to see every day in the Big Ten, you have to be poised in your decisions. You have to hit singles. That's how we score points.
"Those days of playing those teams where you can maybe go for some home runs and still win, it doesn't work. We learned that down when we were in Columbus."
It carried over in a road win at Minnesota, but Purdue - a thorn in U-M's side in recent years - frustrated the Wolverines in the first half by playing long ball. Guard D.J. Byrd hit triples from 25 feet, one banked in from the top of the key that freshman guard Nik Stauskas swore he got a finger on.
The Boilermakers played hard, a staple of a Matt Painter team, and were within five late in the game before Stauskas hit a triple on a dish from Burke that helped Michigan weather the storm. Hardaway's defense on Byrd, though, was as key as anything U-M did on offense, another sign of his increased maturity.
"Nik is improving like crazy with his defense," Beilein said. "When he came in, he had a pretty good situation learning - but not how he's learning now, with all the tricks and all you have to do. He's guarding D.J. Byrd and he forgot D.J. is him, can shoot from deep. We're not going to say he can't guard him, but Tim has become good not only at guarding, but getting Nik and Glenn [Robinson] and everybody where they should be."
Robinson (12 points, nine rebounds) and Burke (15 points, eight assists) were also turned loose on defense in the second half, notching key steals that helped fuel U-M's runs. When Purdue crashed the offensive glass, Michigan responded with outlet passes that led to easy points, something not easy to come by in the halfcourt against Purdue.
Big man Mitch McGary provided a lift with a number of key rebounds to fuel the break, while Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford (eight solid minutes) also helped U-M control the glass in the second half.
In a typical Big Ten slugfest, the Wolverines took a few on the chin before counterpunching their way to a key road win.
"In the second half we really played smart both on offense and defense," Beilein said. "I'm just really happy. That's Big Ten basketball at a really high level. You [media] have these seats that are up a little bit. When you are close to the floor, you see that is intense basketball with an awful lot of speed and strength combined at the same time."
Only a third of the battles are over, too, leaving the Wolverines plenty of work to do to capture a second straight Big Ten title.
Burke was a catalyst with some second half steals that helped change the game.
"Between him and Glenn, they have an ability to feel the game and get steals," Beilein said. "We're encouraging that. We're a very low steal team; it's not a strength. We try to at different times pick our spots, but don't get ill advised fouls trying to get them."
McGary played 21 minutes to Morgan's 16 and Hoford's eight, but Beilein has no plans to replace Morgan in the starting lineup.
"We love working with Mitch; he's getting better daily," Beilein said. "But J-Mo, he gives us so many things. I love having that bench rotation right now. Because of the ball screen coverage and Jordan plays so hard, Mitch has got to come in at the 17-minute mark. And how about Jon's eight minutes today? They were exceptional."
Perhaps good enough to earn more minutes in the near future, Beilein said.