After win, Wolverines control own destiny

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Don’t let Caris LeVert’s braces fool you. Or Nik Stauskas’ Christmas morning-like reaction after hitting a step-back 3-pointer.

Yes, Glenn Robinson III is quiet and low key in interviews, but he has shown that he can play loudly. And Spike Albrecht’s youthful face might seem a better fit for “High School Musical” than a sure-handed point guard in coach John Beilein’s system, but this Michigan core has made it work.

This group of underclassmen took control of the Big Ten title race on Sunday with a 79-70 win over Michigan State that felt more like a 20-point blowout.

Now, for the first time in Beilein’s tenure at Michigan, the Wolverines' Big Ten title fate is in their own hands at this point in the season, not another teams'.

In 2012, after Michigan finished in a three-way tie for the regular-season title, the Wolverines couldn’t do anything but sit in their team room in Ann Arbor, Mich., watching on TV and cheering for then-No. 10 Ohio State to beat then-No. 5 Michigan State on the road.

If the Wolverines finish strong, however, they will need to cheer for no one but themselves as they close out this season.

Michigan still has four games left -- road trips to Purdue and Illinois and home contests against Minnesota and Indiana. Those four teams have combined for just 20 Big Ten wins while Michigan has recorded 11, though the Big Ten has proven repeatedly this season that any team can win on any given night.

Much will be said about how this young team can handle the pressure, as any of those games could be presented as trap games, but the No. 20 Wolverines certainly have momentum with such a convincing win over No. 13 Michigan State.

“[This game] does not win us a championship,” Beilein said after the game. “We’ve got four games to play. What it does do is just put us in position to be in position.”

Michigan moves to 11-3 in the Big Ten while Michigan State drops to 11-4 with home games against Illinoi and Iowa and a road game with Ohio State still on the docket. Wisconsin, which sits at third in the league with a 9-5 record, still has Indiana, Penn State, Purdue and Nebraska -- not the toughest schedule, but even if the Badgers close out the way Michigan hopes to, they will still finish behind the Wolverines.

This is the position that Beilein has been working toward. For the past few seasons, team huddles, meetings and games have ended with discussions and chants of the Big Ten title.

And coming into the game that would decide whether Michigan had control of its own fate or whether it would leave it up to the basketball gods (and Bo Ryan and Tom Izzo), the Wolverines took the floor against Michigan State like a well-oiled, veteran team. They might be young but they’re plenty experienced.

Beilein has taught his team to treat every game this season like a Big Ten title game, and this one was no different. There was no reason to make it any more important than their their previous Big Ten title game (which they lost, to Wisconsin last week) or the one before that (which they won, at Ohio State, on Feb. 11), because this was like every other championship game they had played this season. The fact that it was more real, didn’t come up.

“There was a lot we could’ve talked about,” Michigan’s lone senior, Jordan Morgan said. “We could’ve talked about the Big Ten title race. We could’ve talked about Michigan-Michigan State. We could’ve talked about the fact that we just lost. We could’ve talked about the fact that we won there. There was a lot we could’ve talked about.

“I think we just did a good job of focusing on what we needed to do to be successful.”

Michigan focusing on Michigan -- sounds like a championship team, the things Izzo and Ryan and Thad Matta have said as past championship seasons came to a close.

Like many of the other teams that Beilein has coached during his seven years at Michigan, this team is young. It starts a freshman, three sophomores and a senior. Its first man off the bench is usually a sophomore or freshman, and after them, a junior.

But its core -- the Fresh Five, as the sophomore class was once dubbed -- started preparing for this season during the summer of 2012 when they all arrived on campus.

And though this team was Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke’s last season, this season's core gained valuable experience -- both in playing time and how to play championship basketball.

“This group has been through it all,” Stauskas said. “Other than Derrick [Walton] and Zak [Irvin] being freshmen we went all the way to the Final Four last year. We’ve seen every great team. We’ve been in every tough environment. At this point we feel like we’ve seen it all and we can just play basketball, just play our game.”

On Sunday, that game meant 20-plus point performances from both LeVert and Stauskas (the Wolverines are 3-0 when that happens), 15 points and a team-high five boards from Robinson. It also meant a clean game in which the Wolverines committed just three turnovers.

It was the kind of performance that wins games and, eventually, a championship.

But even with the highlight-reel plays that the Wolverines dished out on Sunday, Robinson says there’s still be a more potential they have to reach.

“Not the best of it,” Robinson said. “You’ve only seen a little part of it.”

And how far off is that?

“Not far at all,” Robinson said.

With four games left in the regular season and Michigan on its way to a title, that sounds about right.