Michigan once again playing its best as March arrives

  • Michigan-Penn-St-Basketball-2

    The defense provided by Zavier Simpson has been a key part of Michigan's strong play down the stretch.


  • ANN ARBOR — As winter’s thaw commences, college basketball’s holy grail beckons.

    The calendar has flipped to March, a month that features buzzer-beaters, Cinderellas, and the wackiest tournament in sports. And just like a flower’s bloom in springtime, the Michigan basketball team has emerged from its winter slumber in great form.

    Should anyone be surprised? This is what coach John Beilein’s done over 11 seasons at Michigan, and this year’s team might be his best coaching job yet. Just when you doubt him or the Wolverines, they do what they’ve done so often — play their best basketball at the right time.

    Just like last year.

    “We’re playing for a championship,” Beilein said. “We’d like to win another one. This is another opportunity.”

    Michigan coach John Beilein's teams have shown a proclivity for peaking in March.
    Michigan coach John Beilein's teams have shown a proclivity for peaking in March.

    Entering Thursday’s second-round Big Ten tournament game against No. 12-seeded Iowa (14-18), fifth-seeded Michigan (24-7) has won five in a row and seven of its past eight. UM's 24 wins are its most in the regular season since the 2012-13 team, which lost to Louisville in the national championship game, won 25. The 13 conference wins are the second most in Beilein’s tenure.

    All with a team that lost Derrick Walton, Jr., Zak Irvin, and D.J. Wilson. Before the season, many thought Michigan would be a fringe-bubble team. Now a No. 6 seed is the worst possible outcome, while a 4 or 5 is more probable.

    “We’re growing with our defense,” Beilein said. “Our kids have really done a great job of understanding that our best offense is if we get out in transition, and the only way we can get out in transition if we get stops. Our defense is improving, we’re creating some turnovers, but we’re really running well too. That’s been big for us.”

    It’s not unusual to see the Michigan football team dominate defensively. But under Beilein, defense hasn’t been the Wolverines’ vehicle to success. They’re ranked in the top 10 in adjusted defensive efficiency by KenPom.com. In December, Beilein was skeptical of the improved defense. That isn’t the case anymore.

    Sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson is the catalyst, which is why teammates took unkindly to the Lima native being left off the All-Big Ten defensive team. Simpson has proved to be one of the best on-ball defenders in the league.

    “I would lie if I said he didn’t set the tone,” junior forward Moritz Wagner said of the Lima native. “He takes his matchups so personally, how intense he plays, the type of energy he brings — he’s definitely leading us in that regard. I’m very proud and happy to have him.”

    The snub, whether perceived or reality, did seem odd when you examine the numbers. The Wolverines rank first in the Big Ten and eighth nationally in scoring defense (63.4 points per game), they led the conference in turnover margin (plus-2.8), and they forced the fifth-most turnovers (208).

    “If there are five better defenders in the league, the other coaches must have seen them because I didn't see it,” said Beilein, who also advocated for senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman’s inclusion. “But if the other coaches saw it, that's what the vote is.”

    It’s about the only disrespect Michigan’s faced lately. UM has soared to No. 13 in the coaches’ poll and 15th in the AP vote. There isn’t a whole lot to prove in Midtown Manhattan this week. Perhaps a seed line could be improved, Michigan could halt rival Michigan State’s winning streak, and a trophy could be added to Crisler Center.

    Regardless, Michigan will enter the NCAA tournament in two weeks as a recharged, confident basketball team that higher seeds would prefer to avoid.

    Said freshman guard Jordan Poole: “We have a lot of big-time players on this team.”

    Contact Kyle Rowland at krowland@theblade.com, 419-724-6110 or on Twitter @KyleRowland.