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Surging Michigan Beats Purdue

After winning five of six and handing Purdue its worst loss of the season, Michigan is starting to look like a tournament team.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

What was already an up-and-down season for Michigan reached its lowest point in early February, when the Wolverines lost at home Ohio State. The Buckeyes came into Ann Arbor with just a 3-7 conference record, but left with a four-point victory. After the loss, Michigan stood at 14-8 and appeared to be going nowhere.

Derrick Walton Jr. seemed to take offense to the "white collar" label that was pinned on the Wolverines earlier in the season, as the senior averaged nearly 20 points and seven rebounds from his point guard position in the six games since losing to Illinois (the origin of the "white collar" reference). He didn't get much help, however. At least not much consistent help, as Walton was often forced to carry the load himself. This was particularly the case in back-to-back losses to Michigan State and Ohio State, when Walton tallied 24 and 25 points respectively. Despite Walton's inspired play, and despite Michigan's often gaudy offensive efficiency numbers, the Wolverines still all-too-often had trouble scoring in key moments, seemed to have little interest in playing defense and even less interest in rebounding. In short, Michigan was playing ... Michigan basketball. At least the kind of basketball the Wolverines have played far too often over the past couple of years.

Squarely on the bubble, if not on the wrong side of it, pundits debated Michigan's tournament selection merit. But more telling than any good wins or bad losses, the eye test told you that Michigan simply wasn't playing like a tournament team.

Yet after that Ohio State game, instead of throwing in the towel, Michigan found resolve. Perhaps, in the words of Michigan's football coach, the loss "put steel in their spines." Whatever the case, the Wolverines responded by hitting another gear, a gear they hadn't been able to find all season. Since losing to Ohio State, a game in which the Buckeyes so dominated the glass that they rebounded nearly as many of their own missed shots as did Michigan, the Wolverines responded by beating Michigan State, completing a season sweep of Indiana and knocking off then-first place Wisconsin. Walton continued his strong play, but suddenly he had help. Many Wolverines upped their games, but none more so than Mo Wagner (averaging 16.3 PPG & 5.8 RPG over the past six games) and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (scoring in double-figures in five of the past six games).

But more than more balanced scoring, Michigan was doing things it hadn't done all season. Michigan will never be a dominant rebounding team, but the Wolverines started doing a better job of holding their own on the boards, and even more importantly, picked up their defense appreciably, particularly on the perimeter, where it sometimes seemed non-existent earlier in the season. Senior Zak Irvin has yet to shake his season-long offensive woes, but that hasn't affected the rest of his game, as Irvin often sets the tone on defense. And Michigan's improved defense, as much as anything, is what has spurred the Wolverine revival.

That revival that continued Saturday when Michigan knocked off conference-leading Purdue, a victory noteworthy for more than simply boosting Michigan's tournament resume. If there is one thing gives John Beilein's teams fits, it's size. NBA size. And that's what Purdue brought to town in the form of seven-footer Isaac Hass and probable Big Ten player of the year Caleb Swanigan. Michigan not only played well offensively and got balanced scoring, but more importantly, the Wolverines handled Purdue's big men. Sure, Happ and Swanigan had off games, but Michigan deserves some of the credit for that. Wagner was particularly effective drawing Swanigan away from the basket and every time Happ touched the ball in the paint, he was surrounded by a pack of Wolverines. Both figuratively and literally, Purdue presented Michigan with its biggest test to date, and Michigan responded with a wire-to-wire win.

Barring a complete collapse over the season's final few games, Saturday's win likely assures Michigan a spot in the NCAA tournament. But more importantly, Michigan is looking like a much better team. And with Walton finishing his career on a high note, Wagner becoming a legitimate difference maker and the team as a whole playing much better defense, Michigan is also playing like a team that could actually do something come March.