Walking through Michigan’s athletic campus on the concrete footpath that connects State Street and Crisler Arena, you’ll cross a set of railroad tracks. On an overcast day in winter, with construction cranes dotting the landscape, the rusted rails and unused ties scattered on the gravel serve as a reminder of where you are. This is not a place that exceeds its surroundings. Despite the lovely college setting a few blocks north, where the buildings are made of stone and the streets are full of restaurants and theaters and stores, Ann Arbor isn't far removed from the old industrial Midwest. It's a neighbor to towns like Ypsilanti, Flint, and Detroit, where blue-collar prosperity has faded into decline, leaving the region somewhere on the timeline between industry and wasteland. Even here, just a 10-minute walk from the maize-and-blue paradise, the underlying character can't be disguised.
One side of Crisler Arena is fenced off, with Spence Brothers Construction signs that offer warnings to pedestrians. I count five backhoes and a bulldozer by the media tunnel on Wednesday night. By the main entrance, marked by a small blue sign, more fencing keeps visitors from mounds of dirt that have been excavated to form what looks like a moat. The building itself is a circular structure made of brick and concrete, but the important thing to know is that if the sun ever decided to come out, Crisler Arena would literally sit in the shadows of the giant football stadium, the Big House itself, with its facade of lancet arches rising just yards to the west.
In a place like this, you have to wonder if beautiful basketball will ever be played. The closest Michigan came was in the Fab Five years, but the defining characteristic of those teams was a combative streak — the trash talking and the swagger that made them heroes and villains, depending on which America you identified with. And even those sharp memories have been erased from Crisler Arena. The Final Four banners from '92 and '93 were taken down a decade later, in November 2002, when the financial details of Chris Webber's relationship with Ed Martin became impossible to whitewash.
After that, fans had to endure the difficult Tommy Amaker years, and it was only when John Beilein took over in 2007 that the program began to shift. The growing pains of his first season resulted in a 10-22 record, the school's worst, but Beilein led them to the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2008-09. Two years later, they nearly knocked off Duke in the round of 32, losing 73-71 after a furious comeback. Now, Beilein's club is 14-3 and ranked 13th in the country.
And something else has changed, too; for the first time in years, Michigan has a top 20 offense. With a talented sophomore class that includes Tim Hardaway Jr., Evan Smotrycz and Jordan Morgan combined with sharpshooting seniors Zack Novak and Stu Douglass, Beilein has his best Michigan team to date. But the real engine, the unlikely one, may be freshman point guard Trey Burke, already a courageous talent averaging 14.1 points and 5.1 assists per game.
Of the 74 basketball teams in the Power Six conferences, Northwestern is the only one that's never made the NCAA tournament. This season presents a strong opportunity, but the situation is very uncertain. The Wildcats are led by John Shurna, the 6-foot-9 senior with the odd shot — a sort of pushing motion that starts at his forehead — that's allowed him to hit 41 3-pointers coming into Wednesday’s game. He and junior Drew Crawford are the only real scorers on the floor, and when they're not hitting against strong teams, Northwestern tends to suffer lopsided losses.
Among the Michigan student section, which stretches down the court-level sideline of the “TV side” opposite the cameras, the main fashion choice is a yellow T-shirt with a loose necktie. Until the second half, the loudest cheers from these fans come during the inspirational video montage (Tom Brady, Lloyd Carr, and other football personalities saying, "This is Michigan!") and when the football team parades onto the floor during a media timeout, showing off the Sugar Bowl trophy. The band behind the baseline strikes up “Hail to the Victors” at the slightest provocation, a melody that has probably been ingrained into your memory if you've ever watched five minutes of college football. Against Northwestern, the Wolverine battle hymn is played 12 times, an average of once every 10 minutes.
I asked Dylan Burkhardt, the founder and editor of UMHoops.com, how he would characterize the school's fan base. While acknowledging the obvious predominance of football, he expressed optimism about the fans who pack a recently renovated Crisler. "The tough years in the early aughts wore down a fan base that looks at basketball as a bit of a luxury," he wrote. "But momentum surrounding the program is as strong as it has been in decades. The on-court product continues to improve, and some of the country's best recruits (like ESPN's No. 2 Mitch McGary) are signing with John Beilein."
The future is bright. The present isn't too bad, either. Aside from another loss to Duke and road losses to Virginia and Indiana, two of the toughest venues in the country so far this year, Michigan has looked stellar. Wednesday's game against the Wildcats looks like a formality, but that expectation only reveals a lack of understanding about the depth and strength of this year's Big Ten.
Northwestern comes out with a small lineup, anchored by Shurna at center, and it's clear from the outset that Michigan's newfound offensive prowess won't be making an appearance. Shurna is close to useless as a rebounder underneath, easily pushed aside by the strong Michigan players, but the Wolverines miss their first eight shots anyway. Some are layups, some are 3-pointers, and it's a bad situation all around, because Northwestern is on fire. The Wildcats are playing quick, in tune with each other and lacking any immobile big men to slow things down.
This is the kind of win the Wildcats need to even think about breaking the NCAA tournament dry spell — and they know it. Most of their offensive sets start with four players on the perimeter and one at the high post. Often, this high post player is a facilitator like Luka Mirkovic, the Serbian native who rarely looks to shoot. From that set, Northwestern can score on backdoor cuts, post-ups by Shurna, drives by Crawford, and 3-pointers set up by outside screens. Every one of these possibilities is realized Wednesday. By halftime, Northwestern is shooting an astounding 61 percent from the field, while Michigan is 9-of-32 for an abysmal 28 percent. Only a slew of turnovers by Northwestern and some strong offensive rebounding by the Wolverines keeps it relatively close, at 34-27.
Hardaway is the anomaly for Michigan, hitting on 5-of-7 from the field and 4-of-5 from 3 for 14 first-half points. He's keeping his team in the game after Novak spends 17 minutes on the bench with two early fouls. Afterward, Beilein would call the halftime situation dire, and it becomes even more so when Shurna opens the second half with five straight points to push the lead to 10.
That's when Michigan begins to play ugly. In the post, Smotrycz and Novak get rough with Shurna, putting their bodies into him, bumping him off the ball, and generally making him fight for every inch. Shurna hates this physicality, hates it viscerally and philosophically and every other way you can hate something. More often than not, he casts a look at the referee, hoping for a foul call, before retreating to the perimeter. He'll finish the game with 21 points, but after his second jumper of the half, with 19 long minutes remaining, he's scored all but four of that total. The rest of the game is a vanishing act.
Michigan also plays smart. They start to hedge off screens, depriving Shurna and Crawford of easy shots while remaining aware of the backdoor cuts. After the game, I ask three different Michigan players, Douglass, Hardaway, and Novak, if they can sense when they're beginning to break a team's will on defense.
"Definitely," Douglass says. "We toughed it out mentally, because physically we were pretty spent."
"Yeah," Hardaway says, "you get real comfortable on the defensive end. It feels like you want to play defense over and over again."
"Bless our scout team," Novak says. "They run it [the opposing offense] for two days. These guys practice this 90 percent of the practice every day for half a season now. And a lot of them have been doing it for years."
(In the postgame locker room, at Novak's urging, Beilein has his scout team stand up on chairs to be recognized in front of the regulars.)
Northwestern will score just 20 points in the second half, and when the Michigan run comes, starting at the 13-minute mark, it looks like they'll overwhelm an opponent that ran out of magic far too early. With 12:30 left, it's still 44-40 Northwestern, but all the momentum is with the home team. The fans, dormant until now, arrive in full throat.
That's when Northwestern coach Bill Carmody tries a novel approach. He calls timeout.
And then he calls it again.
And then again.
The three timeouts are taken within two minutes, and are followed by an immediate TV timeout, and then another just two minutes later. "I was just trying to stop the noise," Carmody would say after the game. After the fourth timeout, his team trails for the first time all game, 44-46. But strangely enough, the strategy works. The air has been sucked out of the building, the fans are slow to regain their form, and Michigan goes cold again.
Here again, only defense can save the home team. The rest of the game features brutal, unforgiving, inglorious basketball. After some success going inside, Michigan is unable to regain post position. It's worse for the Wildcats; they've been completely bullied, and settle again and again for contested outside shots. Neither team will score even 10 points in the final 10 minutes of regulation.
The signature possession of the game, though it decides nothing at the time, comes with 5:32 on the clock and Michigan trailing by four. The Wolverines miss three shots in succession, but grab the offensive rebound all three times. The fourth attempt, a layup by Smotrycz, goes down, a spirit-breaking basket for Northwestern. On a night when the Wildcats will out-shoot their opponents by 17 percentage points, it's the offensive rebounds alone that will keep them from a much-needed win.
Hardaway’s 3 with 2:44 remaining knots the game at 54, and neither team will score again in regulation. In overtime, Burke emerges. After Hardaway hands him a rebound, the freshman looks at his teammate, angry that they're still in a tight game, and shouts, "Let's fucking go!" Burke goes on to score the final eight points of the game, six of them on free throws, as Michigan takes a three-point lead with just six seconds left.
In desperation, trying to tie the game as the clock runs out, Dave Sobolewski, the Northwestern point guard, drives and kicks to Alex Marcotullio. As he launches the 3, a hustling Hardaway absolutely annihilates him in his rush to contest. The whistle blows. A groan goes up in Crisler. There are 0.3 seconds remaining. Marcotullio heads to the line for three.
When a player has to shoot free throws after the clock has expired, it might be the loneliest scenario in any sport. What Marcotullio faces is a close second. His teammates are with him on the court, but Burke and the Wolverines are behind him, exhorting the crowd to make noise, to show their ferocity, to end the game with intimidation. Everything depends on one player, and he's on an uncomfortable stage.
Marcotullio composes himself. He has his routine, and he knows to stick by it. But this is an ugly game. With roars cascading on his lonely form from every direction, his first shot hits the back rim and bounces away. On the sideline, Carmody deflates.
Michigan's considerable talent took the night off, but its toughness was enough. Outside, where the Northwestern bus waits by the fences and the resting backhoes, it's already started to rain.