Michigan didn’t just save the Big Ten from complete embarrassment in the first weekend of the 2021 NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
The Wolverines also offered real hope that the conference could be represented on Final Four weekend. At the end of a four-day span when eight of the nine conference teams lost in a series of inconsistent performances, No. 1 Michigan delivered an 86-78 victory over No. 8 LSU in the East Region’s second round Monday night.
Consistency still counts for something.
The Big Ten regular-season champion will make its fourth consecutive trip to the Sweet 16. The only school with a longer streak is Gonzaga — the top seed in the tournament — with six.
How significant was the victory for the conference? Had Michigan lost, the Big Ten would have missed out on the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2006. The Big Ten’s other top programs all flopped in rapid succession through the first two rounds.
No. 11 Michigan State lost a play-in game to UCLA. No. 2 Ohio State lost to No. 15 Oral Roberts and No. 4 Purdue lost to No. 13 North Texas in first-round stunners.
No. 1 Illinois — the Big Ten Tournament champion — lost to No. 8 Loyola Chicago on Sunday, and No. 2 Iowa was run off the floor by No. 7 Oregon on Monday afternoon. No. 9 Wisconsin, No. 10 Rutgers and No. 10 Maryland all were eliminated in the second round, too.
“Just like football” comparisons started, and in the most unflattering way possible. This felt like another New Year’s Day massacre. The validity of the Big Ten’s strong regular season was shredded, and the prevailing thought was that these teams wore out each other.
Leave it to the school that takes the brunt of that football criticism to save basketball, at least for one more weekend. The Wolverines did that, unlike football, by throwing their game back in the SEC’s face.
LSU was a hot upset pick, especially knowing Michigan was without senior Isaiah Livers, who suffered a stress fracture in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. The Tigers led by nine points in the first half and it looked uncertain whether the Wolverines would be able to keep up with a high-scoring offense led by future NBA first-round pick Cameron Thomas.
Michigan answered with a well-rounded performance from its core players. Eli Brooks, who was hobbled in the Big Ten Tournament by an ankle injury, hit five 3-pointers and finished with 21 points. Chaundee Brown added 21 off the bench, and Franz Wagner and Hunter Dickinson scored 15 and 12 points, respectively. Mike Smith had an off night, but the Wolverines won an up-and-down affair that felt like a second-weekend game.
Can Michigan sustain that without Livers? That was the big question entering the tournament knowing he provided 13.1 points and 6.0 rebounds per game, not to mention his intangible leadership qualities.
Kevin Johnson, Livers’ replacement in the starting lineup, has given high-energy minutes. Brown will need to give the same scoring boost in the second weekend. Brooks hit 8 of 14 from 3-point range in two tournament games, and that hot shooting must continue. Dickinson and Wagner have to stay out of foul trouble to keep the pressure off Smith. That’s a lot of “ifs,” but the Wolverines are capable of getting to the Final Four for the third time since 2013.
The Big Ten cannot complain at this point. The conference still faces a national championship drought that extends to 2000. At least there’s hope.
Michigan is still in the fight thanks to second-year coach Juwan Howard, who played in two national championship games and an Elite Eight matchup with eventual national champion Arkansas as a Wolverines player from 1991-94. The stage wasn’t too big for him then, and it should not come as a surprise that the Wolverines were the team that stepped up in the most unpredictable first weekend in history amid the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.
They are built for it. Michigan was the Big Ten that team that had a near-monthlong COVID pause and closed the last two weeks with five games in 11 days. A loss to LSU would have presented a much more difficult narrative, but the conference now enters the second weekend with a 7-8 record.
At least Michigan is in the Sweet 16, right?
That will be remembered more than the record at this point, another valuable lesson that is proven right every year.
Consistency still counts for something.