NEW YORK — It’s as if Cinderella woke up on the wrong side of the bed, stomping pumpkins and kicking mice.
“We’re not going to just let somebody come into our house,” Michigan guard Zavier Simpson snarled Saturday after the Wolverines had shown Michigan State the Big Ten Tournament door, “and take over.”
Last March? Glass slippers.
This one? Arm bars.
Matthews laughing right in Ward's face.
I see ya, kid. pic.twitter.com/1LAxYtyoHa
— Due# (@JDue51) March 3, 2018
“I don’t think it’s different,” Purdue forward Vincent Edwards said of Michigan (27-7), who’ll take on the Boilermakers (28-5) Sunday afternoon (4:30 p.m. ET, CBS) in the Big Ten’s conference tourney title game. “I think guys just bought in more. I think that’s what it really was.
“I feel like they’ve got the same type of guys. Maybe they added a little bit better guard play than what they had last year. And they lost D.J. Wilson, of course, to the NBA. I think they just bought in to defending and wanting to defend.”
‘They get better as the year goes on’
Moe Wagner is Moe Wagner — volcanic, fluid and occasionally hilarious. If you lose track of Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson on the wings, they’ll bury you from beyond the arc, same as it ever was.
The general plot line of the Wolverines’ 2018 Big Ten Tournament run mirrors that magical March in D.C., only without as many twists, turns, and near plane-crashes. They’ve won three games in roughly 48 hours. Again. They started to peak during February’s dog days. Again.
“His teams, they get better as the year goes on,” Nebraska guard Evan Taylor said of coach John Beilein, whose Wolverines drove a giant wooden stake into the heart of the Cornhuskers’ flailing NCAA tourney hopes on Friday. “That’s a credit to them.”
So is this, now that you mention it: five Michigan players scored in double figures against the Spartans (29-4), who were Big Ten Tournament’s top seed. Four Wolverines attempted at least six shots. Last winter, senior guards Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin pulled the sled. This winter, Michigan shares the wealth and shares responsibility — especially on the defensive end.
The Wolverines finished the 2016-17 campaign with only one player — Walton — ranked among the Big Ten’s top 20 players in defensive win shares, as tracked by Sports-Reference.com. As of Sunday morning, they’d landed three among this season’s top 20, led by Wagner at No. 8 (1.9 shares) and followed by Abdur-Rahkman (No. 15, 1.8) and Charles Matthews (No. 17, 1.8).
Different tire iron.
“I think there are some similarities,” Robinson said. “Obviously, there’s some different personnel.”
‘They know they’re in for a tussle’
Matthews, a 6-foot-6 swingman who sat out last season after transferring from Kentucky, added a layer of Chicago tough. Simpson, a 6-foot sophomore who won Walton’s old job at the point, plays angrier than a hornet’s nest that’s been poked with a stick one too many times.
“When they come through the front door and they meet Zavier,” Beilein explained, “they know they’re in for a tussle. And all of our other guys sort of feed off that.”
Shooting rhythm comes, shooting rhythm goes.
Defensive intensity, done right, is contagious.
“There’s a mental side to it and there is the physical side,” Beilein said. “You just give them this appreciation that it’s extremely good to dive on the floor. It’s great to take a charge. I’ve just got to tell you, we very rarely get a high school kid who’s ever taken a charge. And the [importance] of guarding the ball and not fouling.
“So there’s a mental toughness and a physical toughness. But we’re not beating our chests about it. We’re just saying, ‘You know what, there are a lot of ways to be tough, and we’re going to be that.’”
Beilein’s teams in the past have labeled him him as sort of anti-Bob-Huggins, all fun-and-gun and junk defenses. And yet there’s nothing junky about how the Wolverines reframed their own narrative. At the start of the week, Michigan ranked No. 6 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency by KenPom.com (93.3 points allowed per 100 possessions) — ahead of Michigan State (No. 9, 93.8), Purdue (No. 26, 96.5) and Wisconsin (No. 68, 99.7), squads renowned for strong-arming first and asking questions later.
Who knew Beilein’s fairy godmother would teach Cinderella how to sweep the leg once she got to the ball?
“They kind of figured it out,” Edwards said. “They trusted their coaches. Their coaches got them to actually believe in playing defense.”
They’re getting the rest of us to believe, too.