NEW YORK — John Beilein did it again.
For the second time in as many season, a Beilein-coached Michigan team went from early-season afterthought to late-season contender as they rolled through the Big Ten tournament and to their second straight title.
On Sunday afternoon, as thousands of Michigan fans turned Madison Square Garden turned into Crisler Center East, the Wolverines rode Mo Wagner’s hot hand to a 75-66 win over Purdue, their first win against the Boilermakers in three games this season. Wagner scored 10 of his 17 points during an early second half surge that pushed a five-point halftime lead as high as 15 points.
Jon Teske scored 12 of his 14 points in the first half, but the star of this game for Michigan was, in truth, Zavier Simpson. He was tasked with doing the heavy-lifting against Purdue star Carsen Edwards, who finished with just 12 points on 4-for-17 shooting. But more important was Simpson’s work running Michigan’s ball-screen offense. Purdue struggles defending ball-screens as it is, and Simpsons ability to get downhill and create off the bounce in those actions is why the Wolverines were able to take control of this one early on. His stat-line — ten points, five boards and five assists — does not do justice to his importance in this game.
This is the second straight season where Beilein has turned Michigan from a team with major question marks throughout the season into one of college basketball’s hottest teams and a legitimate threat to make a run deep into the NCAA tournament. Last year, after losing six of their first ten Big 10 games and finishing the regular season squarely on the bubble with a 20-11 record and a 10-8 mark in the league, Michigan won the Big Ten tournament, upset No. 2 Louisville in the second round of the NCAA tournament and came within a missed-Derrick Walton jumper of upsetting No. 3 seed Oregon and getting a shot at No. 1 seed Kansas for the right to go to the Final Four.
That run hinged on the growth of Walton from a maddeningly-inconsistent talent into one of the best point guards in the country over the final two months of the season.
The turning point in this season for the Wolverines was when Simpson took over the starting point guard role, which was not something that ever appeared to be a guarantee. The point is the most important position in Beilein’s offense, and there were some very real questions about whether or not there was anyone on this roster that was capable of playing the role in the way that Michigan needed.
Beilein recruited grad transfer Jaaron Simmons from Ohio to take over that role as Simpson went through his growing pains, but Simmons could not win the job. He’s taken a DNP-CD in eight games this year. Freshman Eli Brooks briefly took over the starting role during the team’s trip to the Maui Invitational, but but that didn’t last, either. Eventually, Simpson took that starting spot over, starting right after the Wolverines blew a 20-point lead to nemesis Ohio State in a loss in early December.
Michigan has also grown into one of college basketball’s best defensive teams. As it currently stands, they are ranked sixth in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, which is a far cry from what we usually expect out of Beilein’s teams. Even his Final Four team in 2013 was ranked outside the top 60 in defensive efficiency prior to the start of the NCAA tournament.
With the way this group is defending, and with a point guard in place this season, Michigan once again is poised to be a trendy pick to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
And with a coach who has consistently proven to be one of college basketball’s best in tournament settings, there’s no reason they can’t get to San Antonio for the season’s final weekend.