U-M is unlikely champion of rivalry

“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, PLEASE REMAIN IN YOUR SEATS,” the PA announcer boomed. The game was over. The stands were still packed.

On the court, surrounded by students and well-wishers, the Michigan basketball team launched into song, leading Crisler Arena in “The Victors.” The crowd bellowed and swayed. You’d have thought they’d have won some kind of championship.

Well. No. Neither team on the floor Saturday looked like a world-beater. But Michigan and Michigan State weren’t trying to beat the world. Just each other. And for the second time this snow-filled winter, the Wolverines came out on top.

Been there, won that. Been here, won that, too. Michigan – and this was impossible to imagine before the season – just swept the regular season from its archrival, the team that was supposed to contend for a national title. And, in doing so, U-M likely launched itself into the NCAA tournament for only the second time in 13 years.

Ladies and gents, remain in your seats.

“Did you think you’d have this kind of freshman year?” someone asked Tim Hardaway Jr. after his 20 points led U-M to a 70-63 win.

“No, I didn’t,” he said, grinning. “I thought I’d just do the little things, you know, dive on the floor and defensive rebound.”

Junior stole the show

Well, he can do that stuff, too. But in one stretch Saturday, the kid with the famous name scored 10 straight points in less than 4 minutes. This was even more impressive, because 1) he didn’t score in the first half and 2) Kalin Lucas was on a tear on the other side.

Hardaway Jr. hit a three-pointer. A dunk. A jump shot. Another three-pointer. He kept a straight arm in the chest of Lucas and the Spartans, who never could recover from a mistake-filled start that saw them fall behind, 15-3, before the ice had melted in anyone’s cola. Whenever the Spartans pulled close, it seemed Hardaway made a play. At one point, he even got stripped driving the lane, lost the ball, but had it bounce back into his grasp and banked it off glass. The freshman named Junior on a team with no seniors was the biggest star of the day.

But not the only one. Michigan got big baskets from Jordan Morgan and Evan Smotrycz, another gangly freshman on a team that seems to be cast out of “High School Musical.” Zack Novak and Darius Morris may not have shot well, but they hit 12 of 15 free throws, a reliable way to win against a team that rebounds a lot better than you.

“Could you have envisioned, when you were 1-6 in the Big Ten, being a No. 4 seed (in the conference tournament, which starts this week)?” someone asked coach John Beilein.

“No,” he said. “I couldn’t.”

Remain in your seats.

Big step forward

The symmetry is that Michigan didn’t get its act together until it played MSU the last time, on a cold January night at the Breslin Center. The Wolverines were reeling from tough losses, they called a team meeting, scolded themselves for unfocused play and vowed to do better. It came together that night.

They’re 8-3 since.

“I think it was how we won that game,” said Novak, who had a huge night in East Lansing. “They made a run and we withstood that, we hit the big shot, and that was the first close game that we really got over the edge. It gave us confidence.”

Michigan is 19-12, 9-9 in the Big Ten. What a nice turnaround for this long-beleaguered team, which seems to be back on solid ground. Let’s not kid ourselves. The Wolverines are not a complete team, nor could they regularly beat top-10 schools. And MSU just looks discombobulated, making mistakes it knows better than to make. The Spartans play as if they fell off the Tower of Babel.

You don’t get good nationally unless you’re great locally. Michigan took the biggest step Saturday.

“I had told them (last week) to visualize winning this game, visualize being at center court and singing ‘The Victors,'” Beilein said.

Saturday, it was reality. Remain in your seats, Michigan fans. The biggest surprise is that there may be more to come.

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