ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The Michigan basketball team says it’s past the perception that it’s a “white-collar program.”
But entering the Big Ten Tournament, which begins Wednesday in Washington, D.C., Michigan (20-11, 10-8 Big Ten) faces the same team that gave it that label.
And some of the Wolverines haven’t completely forgotten about the slight, entering the noon ET tipoff Thursday against the Illini (18-13, 8-10) at the Verizon Center.
“It’s still in the back of our mind,” junior forward D.J. Wilson said Tuesday. “We come in the locker room and we see the words ‘street fight’ on the wall every day. We still haven’t gotten that cleaned up. Every time we look at it, we recollect on when we played them.”
Wilson was referring to the declaration Michigan assistant Billy Donlon scrawled on the wall — in permanent marker — of Michigan’s locker room before its 66-57 win Jan. 21 against the Illini.
“They’re more of a white-collar team traditionally, and at Illinois we’re about toughness and together,” Illinois forward Maverick Morgan told reporters after Illinois’ 85-69 win Jan. 11 against Michigan. “Not that they’re not, but we kind of pride ourselves on defense and that’s something we’ve been working to get better at.”
Michigan point guard Derrick Walton Jr. on facing Illinois
If the win Jan. 21 was a retort to Morgan’s comment, the graffiti was the mindset that Michigan’s coaches wanted their players to take into the remainder of the season.
Now, Michigan faces Illinois for the third time this season. Even Wolverines coach John Beilein was pragmatic about the matchup.
“My preference would be that they’d beat us twice, but then maybe we wouldn’t be playing in this game,” Beilein said. “The next one would be that we at least split with them. If you beat a team two times that’s really hard. We just wouldn’t have that same type of mindset.
“But the fact that we’ve played them twice, we know each other a little better. … But both teams have really evolved.”
Michigan, though, may not have had its evolution without a push from Illinois. Michigan finished the regular season 6-2, including wins over ranked opponents Wisconsin and Purdue, which improved its resume for an NCAA Tournament bid.
“After (Illinois) made the little ‘white collar’ comment, we came in with the blue jerseys and showed that we’re a blue-collar team,” Michigan guard/forward Zak Irvin said. “That was huge for us. It was a turning point for us.”