Commentary

Wolverines show grit, win big

Beilein touts team's toughness, improved defense after routing Badgers

Updated: January 8, 2012, 5:31 PM ET
By Michael Rothstein | WolverineNation

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Stu Douglass dove on the floor, in the middle of a rugby-style scrum, flicked the ball to his teammate and roommate, Zack Novak, who caught the ball, spun on his backside, looked up and saw Trey Burke running by.

At midcourt, the senior flipped it to the freshman, who beat everyone else down the floor for a layup during No. 13 Michigan's 59-41 win over No. 19 Wisconsin on Sunday afternoon.

[+] EnlargeZack Novak
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioSenior Zack Novak made the kind of play he's noted for, a dive-on-the-floor assist to Trey Burke in the second half to ignite Michigan.
In that moment, Michigan coach John Beilein saw what he has been waiting five years for.

"That's how every coach actually needs his team to play," Beilein said. "There's not a coach in the country that doesn't love having that. It's come natural for Zack.

"For Stu, he's got to that point where all he cares about is winning and if I have to dive on the floor or guard a great player and just never give in to fatigue, I'm going to do it because those two want to win."

It was a play one might see in a highlight montage of one of those feel-good basketball movies when the downtrodden team has started to go on a run. It was a play that epitomized what Michigan basketball has become this season -- and really, what the Wolverines have become under Beilein. They are a tough, dive-on-the-floor, take-charges-all-the-time kind of team, one that can play at any pace, be it Wisconsin-like slow or speed-it-up like Memphis.

This is a team that, in prior seasons, would finesse its way through games. It would rely more on 3-point shooting and intelligent basketball than the rough and gruff usually needed to win in the Big Ten would be lost.

Not so this season, and so much of that comes from Novak, whose entire career could be encapsulated in that one play.

"So is a lot of effort turning to a lucky play the epitome of me? Maybe," Novak said. "Coach mentioned they had won a few 50-50 balls early, and we pride ourselves on not being out-toughed and I think that starts with me.

"So I just made it a point that the ball was on the floor and I was going to be the first one on it, and I give Stu the credit. He made the play and I just cleaned it up and Trey had the presence of mind to just run by."

It isn't surprising Wisconsin has been the most difficult team for Michigan to beat, a team the Wolverines hadn't beaten in the prior 10 tries.

Before this season, the Badgers were almost unstoppable at the Kohl Center in Madison, Wis., although this season they've lost back-to-back Big Ten games there. The Badgers also play a style which demands patience on both offense and defense, and that was never a Michigan strength.

That pace might be now. The last time Michigan beat Wisconsin (12-5, 1-3) was on Jan. 28, 2006. Daniel Horton, one of the former players honored Sunday during the dedication of the Player Development Center at halftime, was a senior on that team.

Six seasons ago, Michigan was still trying to rediscover its identity lost in the Ed Martin player payment scandal helped that gutted the program and still had a former coach, Tommy Amaker, who never took the Wolverines to the NCAA tournament.

Move to now. Michigan (13-3, 3-1) has one of the brightest minds in the game in Beilein. It has potentially three or four NBA players on its roster, including sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr., who had a double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds.

And it has a freshman point guard who, despite being the third-youngest player on the team, fits in better than most freshmen on any roster in Burke.

"A lot of people probably thought when they lost an NBA-caliber player like Darius Morris and then they brought in a guard like Trey Burke -- no disrespect to Darius -- but he almost makes them better," senior Wisconsin guard Jordan Taylor said. "He moves the ball well. Maybe not every night but he does some things, knocks down shots better than Darius did.

"But they are both great players, and they have a great team."

And it's finally the kind of team Beilein has always wanted.

Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at michaelrothsteinespn@gmail.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.

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