For a half Sunday against Illinois, Michigan showed many of the same weaknesses it had in losing three of four in a brutal, mid-February stretch. Then the Wolverines played their best 20 minutes in a month, using defense - and toughness - to pull out a 71-58 victory in which they resembled the team that had risen to No. 1 in the country just a few weeks ago.
They'd been called soft following a pummeling at Michigan State in which they weren't competitive for a half, and Illinois - winners of five straight heading in - spent the first 20 minutes punking them as though they'd seen the film and expected little resistance. The Illini owned the glass, turning eight offense rebounds into a number of second chance points. The starters (with freshman Mitch McGary at center in place of still injured Jordan Morgan) appeared tentative and spent much of the first half playing from behind.
So head coach John Beilein turned to his bench. Depth is the difference between this year's Michigan team and last year's, Illinois head coach John Groce said, and it was the difference Sunday. Morgan came back and provided the defense U-M had been lacking. Freshman Caris LeVert was all over the floor on the defensive end, and frosh point guard Spike Albrecht gave great minutes.
"I was thrilled with that second half - every game I'm nervous, but that was going to be a tough one to get through," Beilein said. "That second half looked a lot like we had been playing earlier in the year. The defense was great, and that propelled our offense with fast break opportunities.
"We got the stops we needed to win."
And the contributions they'd been looking for from someone other than sophomore point guard Trey Burke and junior wing Tim Hardaway, Jr. That had been a point of discussion all week, Beilein admitted, and LeVert answered the call. He played swarming defense, hit two, critical threes and provided the energy behind which his teammates thrived.
Burke (26 points, eight assists, one turnover) even let out a yell as though he'd scored the game winner after finding LeVert for a backbreaking triple, one LeVert knocked down with confidence.
"Those two from Columbus have a lot of synergy together," Beilein said. "Caris had been injured, hadn't been himself with the injury, and Jordan as well. When they see each other, they connect.
"There's not a person on this team that doesn't love Caris. When you have an assist to him, it makes you feel even better."
They all appear feel better than they have in weeks. The coaches put together video of the early season highlights showing outstanding team defense and celebrations much like Burke's after setting up LeVert. The bounce had been "incredible," Beilein said, and Morgan was in the center of much of it.
They showed the hustle plays, charges and times of great mental toughness. It took a half on Sunday, but they saw it emerge again in the second half. Freshman Nik Stauskas was barely given room to breathe, but LeVert, Albrecht and redshirt sophomore Jon Horford picked up the slack with well-timed plays in supporting roles.
It added up to a much-needed win that kept Big Ten title hopes alive and finally provided evidence that the Wolverines just might be able to finish the season as strongly as they started.
"There's a bounce in our step right now like we had [before]," Beilein said. "Look at all the team that have come in here, or games we won on the road. Minnesota, we went out there and we were really playing with a lot of confidence. It was all spurred by our defense, so they go hand in hand.
"It is important to have that success. As hard as they practice, they need that success to say, 'hey - it does pay off.'"
Burke's 1,000th career point came on a free throw in the second half.
"It's quiet to me, too, because he's not hogging shots," Beilein said. "There are some games he'll talk to me and say, 'I should have shot less.' He's playing the game the right way, confident enough to know when it's time of him to get get buckets or shoot a three.
"…His combination of being both a playmaker and shooter/scorer has been big for us. He's only the seventh guy ever to score 1,000 in two years. There have been some pretty good players to roll through here. That says it all, really."
Stauskas struggled to get looks, but that opened up the floor for other opportunities.
"We tried to do some things with him, and he had a good take [but didn't finish]," Beilein said. "But they can't have it all. If you take him away, we start off with a couple dunks inside, easy baskets. Jon was wide open, because after he screened, they were running to the corner to stay with him. That was the help guy with Nick, and then we get residual stuff. They pick what they want, and we try to counter it."