NEW YORK — They’re the train you don’t see coming until it’s too late, these Wolverines. A 75-64 victory over Michigan State on Saturday in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals was Michigan’s eighth straight — with five of those victories coming over RPI top 75 dance partners.
In other words, they’re getting fat, all right. Feasting.
And it ain’t on cupcakes.
The Wolverines are playing their best ball of the season right here, right now. Same as a year ago. More context: The five top 75 RPI wins for John Beilein’s bunch since February 1 are the most in the Big Ten over the last four weeks. Purdue has one; the remaining 12 teams in the league have combined for 10.
They’re the defense you don’t see coming until you’re eating its dust. Future NBA millionaire Miles Bridges was held to 17 points on 7-of-18 shooting. Another lottery-pick-to-be, freshman forward Jaron Jackson Jr., was 5 of 13 from the floor, 1 of 6 from beyond the arc.
They were tougher.
They were tighter.
They were hungrier.
They were nastier.
Michigan did all the things Tom Izzo teams made famous in March, against a Tom Izzo team in March — snapping Sparty’s 13-game winning streak and reaching the Big Ten Tournament championship game for a second straight season.
The reigning league tournament champs are chasing history now: No Big Ten squad has won back-to-back conference tourneys since Ohio State in 2010 and 2011.
The Wolverines opened the second half on a 10-2 run, with German forward/cult hero Moe Wagner (15 points, 8 rebounds) accounting for 7 points and buckets on three straight possessions, including a fast-break layup with 15:43 left in the contest that put the Wolverines up 36-31.
— Jordan Tomiyama (@Jttomiyama) March 3, 2018
— Froy El Fuerte (@bigonyou) March 3, 2018
In his last four Big Ten Tournament appearances before Saturday, Wagner had averaged 13.8 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. His career line on those numbers at the start of the day: 10.0 and 4.3.
As semifinals go, this one had all the chippy we could’ve asked for with two in-state brethren, at least early on. With 15:38 left until the halftime break, the Wolverines’ Charles Matthews and Jackson got elbows and wrists tangled on joint possession of a rebound and went to the floor in a heap.
Both were heated as they got up, an exchange of words that forced teammates to step between them and intervene. As the smoke cleared, Spartans enforcer Nick Ward was whistled for a technical foul.
Izzo, no shock, had some words of his own, and Michigan State responded with an 10-1 run, punctuated by an alley-oop feed from Cassius Winston to Gavin Schilling with 11:47 left in the period that put Sparty up 16-14.
Michigan State closed the first half on a 7-1 run and took a 29-26 lead into the half, but Ward was a non-factor the rest of the way.
Meanwhile, the Wolverines’ defensive intensity kept them at arm’s length, given that they’d missed their final 8 attempts from the floor in the first period, and Wagner had whiffed on all 7 of his field-goal attempts over the first 20 minutes.
Big Moe, March’s T-1000, would be back, of course.
You can smother him, burn him, bash him, bake him.
When it’s win-or-go-home, dude always comes back.
Do you know what brand new graphics and photo editing software was used to bring the liquid metal T-1000 to life in 1991's Terminator 2? pic.twitter.com/k7eAA5SdEi
— Hollywood Suite (@hollywoodsuite) November 15, 2017
Michigan fans have seen this movie before, of course. If Saturday was any harbinger, the sequel is setting up to be even sweeter.