After Withstanding LSU’s Best Punch, Michigan Is the Big Ten’s Last Hope
INDIANAPOLIS — There was Michigan. Big, bad No. 1 seed Michigan. The Big Ten regular-season champions. The team coached by a former NBA All-Star. The one left to be its conference’s savior.
And there the Wolverines were, on the ropes against No. 8 seed LSU, down five with 10 minutes left and struggling to make shots or stop shots from being made. This seemed inevitable—the latest Big Ten team to flop in the Big Dance.
And then came an unlikely hero: Wake Forest transfer Chuandee Brown Jr. And then came a 6-foot-9 German-born forward, Franz Wagner. And then came Big Blue, storming back with a sizzling final 10 minutes and claiming an 86–78 win to advance to the Sweet 16.
Big Ten fans breathed a loud sigh of relief. The conference that began with nine men’s NCAA tournament teams is down to a single one: Michigan. It’s all on Big Blue’s shoulders, all on the Wolverines to carry a league that was universally praised as being the strongest conference in basketball this year, only to crumble in March on the grandest stage.
After Alabama bounced Maryland late Monday night, the Big Ten’s record stands at 7–8. The latest blow came earlier Monday when hot-shooting, No. 7 seed Oregon smoked No. 2 seed Iowa. Despite having five of the top 16 seeds in the tournament, the Big Ten will have one squad playing during the second weekend— its regular season champ.
“The motto today was ‘Empty the tank.’ And our guys did that,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said afterward.
Howard’s team needed every last drop. It took LSU’s best shot. The Tigers started out by making better than 60% of their shots, led by the nation’s freshman scoring leader, Cameron Thomas (he finished with a whopping 30 points). He couldn’t miss. Stepback 15-foot jumpers, contested threes, tipped putbacks. All of a sudden, the Wolverines were on the ropes, down nine just minutes into the game.
It got better. Eli Brooks started sinking shots, and Michigan roared back only to find itself down again with about 10 minutes left.
Enter Brown and Wagner. They were responsible for 21 of Michigan’s 28 points during a nine-minute spurt that saw Michigan take a 10-point lead. Brown, an out-of-nowhere hero, made six free throws and two threes, finishing with 21 points—a season high. He hadn’t scored 15 points in a game since February.
Wagner soared too. He slammed in a miss for a dunk, sank a triple and hit two more layups—one a vicious hook shot that ricocheted high off the glass and swished through the net. He turned to his bench and roared.
“Big time players step up in big time moments,” Howard said. “Franz is a big-time player.”
The Wolverines claimed another victory without one of their stars. Isaiah Livers, the second-leading scorer, remains “out indefinitely,” Howard reaffirmed during his postgame news conference. He’s nursing a foot fracture the team uncovered after a Big Ten tournament quarterfinal game.
Because of Livers’s absence, many pegged Michigan as the most vulnerable No. 1 seed in the tournament, capable of being bounced early like its Big Ten brethren. Think again, says Brooks.
“We showed what we thought in the room what we had—it’s next man up. We knew we had enough in the locker room to get to the Sweet 16.”
But can it go further? No. 4 seed Florida State awaits in the next round and probably Alabama after that.
We do know at least one thing: Michigan, and Michigan alone, carries the Big Ten’s banner in a quest to snap the league’s 21-year title drought.