From afterthought to champion: Despite dominance, Michigan’s Big Ten title is an underdog story

Wolverines clinched regular-season championship with win over Michigan State

Isaiah Livers #2 of the Michigan Wolverines celebrates his teams Big Ten championship with Mike Smith #12 after defeating the Michigan State Spartans 69-50 at Crisler Arena on March 04, 2021 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (2021 Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – There’s just something special about this Michigan basketball program.

It felt that way for years under John Beilein. Two surprise runs to the Final Four. Back-to-back Big Ten Tournament titles. The Trey Burke shot. The Jordan Poole miracle.

Michigan hung six banners during the Beilein era, but it was nearly two years ago -- March 14, 2019 -- when he left for the NBA, putting the future of the program in doubt.

“Juwan Howard is great,” we thought. “But can he sustain what Beilein has done?”

Here we are, in Year 2, and he’s already raising a banner of his own.

The Michigan Wolverines celebrate their 2021 Big Ten Championship after defeating the Michigan State Spartans 69-50 at Crisler Arena on March 04, 2021 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (2021 Getty Images)

Michigan wasn’t expected to be anything special this season. It lost longtime point guard Zavier Simpson and fellow senior center Jon Teske to graduation. Those are the two winningest players in program history, and there was nobody on the current roster to replace them.

On top of the departures, Michigan lost its five-star commit Isaiah Todd to the G League. Josh Christopher chose to play alongside his brother at Arizona State. All-in-all, it seemed like the type of offseason that would leave Michigan with a decent, but flawed, roster.

AP voters gave Michigan the No. 25 overall ranking to start the season, and media members picked the Wolverines to finish sixth in the Big Ten. Michigan dropped out of the top 25 entirely after an overtime scare against winless Oakland.

But somewhere along the way, Howard’s team captured a bit of that Beilein-like magic.

When Michigan became the first college basketball team ever -- yes, ever! -- to beat three ranked opponents in a row by 17 points or more, we had to pause. Wait, could something actually be happening here?

Then, after the first loss of the season, Michigan didn’t spiral into a losing streak. It pounded Maryland and then picked up an impressive win at Purdue.

Maybe, just maybe, this team could rally make a run?

Head coach Juwan Howard of the Michigan Wolverines celebrates his teams Big Ten championship after defeating the Michigan State Spartans 69-50 at Crisler Arena on March 04, 2021 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (2021 Getty Images)

Well, that’s when the virus struck. Multiple people connected to Michigan’s athletic department tested positive for the COVID-19 B117 variant, and the state responded by shutting down all the teams.

Michigan basketball didn’t have a single positive test, or really any reason to believe someone had been exposed, for that matter. Yet still, players were shut down for two weeks without practicing or working out together.

Including ramp-up time, the Wolverines didn’t play a game for 23 days. In this Big Ten, it felt like that could derail the season. So many teams have come back from pauses and looked disjointed -- even elite squads like Baylor. How could Michigan overcome such an extended absence against teams that had been playing Big Ten competition for the last three weeks?

It sounds impossible, but somehow, Michigan did it.

Twenty sluggish minutes left Michigan with a 14-point deficit against Wisconsin in an arena Big Ten teams almost never escape with wins. That still wasn’t enough to stop this team.

Neither was a road game against No. 4 Ohio State, which put together a near-perfect offensive masterpiece and couldn’t top Michigan.

Neither was National Player of the Year favorite Luka Garza, whose Iowa team lost by 22 points in Ann Arbor.

By the time the maize confetti fell from the rafters Thursday, Michigan had overcome every single test the conference has to offer, except Illinois. Michigan has beaten 12 of 13 Big Ten opponents -- most in embarrassing fashion -- and led perhaps the toughest version of this league from start to finish.

Mike Smith #12 of the Michigan Wolverines celebrates his teams Big Ten championship with Chaundee Brown #15 after defeating the Michigan State Spartans 69-50 at Crisler Arena on March 04, 2021 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (2021 Getty Images)

There’s no Garza or Ayo Dosunmu on this team. It didn’t return its entire starting lineup or bring in a Kentucky-esque recruiting class (save that for next year).

Howard welcomed back two solid wings in Isaiah Livers and Franz Wagner, and they’ve developed into stars. Eli Brooks, Brandon Johns and Austin Davis have settled into important roles as upperclassmen.

But most importantly, Howard hand-picked three new faces for this roster, and while they weren’t as high-profile as some of the other transfers and five-star recruits, they were perfect for Michigan.

Mike Smith was a volume scorer at Columbia and easily could have gone to a school where he took 20 shots per game. Instead, he came to Michigan and sacrificed his offense to win. He evolved from 20-point scorer to leading assist man in the Big Ten.

Chaundee Brown was a three-year starter at Wake Forest. He’s been a go-to guy since he stepped foot on a college campus. This year? He comes off the bench and gets a couple shots per game. His attitude on the bench and motor when he gets on the floor is invaluable.

The selflessness of Brown and Smith embody this team. But Hunter Dickinson brings everything together.

Dickinson became a legend among Michigan basketball fans when he outplayed No. 1 recruit Evan Mobley during a nationally televised high school game. Afterwards, he told a reporter, “That’s you guys’ No. 1 prospect. I think I’m better.”

Turns out, he’s better. No freshman has been more impressive against this level of competition than Dickinson. His scoring and rebounding numbers speak for themselves, but his ability to play excellent post defense against some of the best big men in the country elevated Michigan’s defense from great to championship-caliber.

His passing ability when teams guard him with multiple defenders makes the offense nearly impossible to stop. Do you want to let Dickinson pick you apart in one-on-one matchups or give Michigan’s shooters open looks from beyond the arc? Not an enviable decision.

To build a team that could win the Big Ten, Howard had to go three-for-three with those new players, and he did it.

Now, don’t get me wrong: The Wolverines still have work to do. Another matchup with rival Michigan State looms this weekend, and then they’ll be a No. 1 seed in both the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. Michigan will be the hunted for the rest of this month.

How did Livers put it Thursday night? “I want the natty, too.”

There’s still a long way to go, but as we’ve learned, doubt this Michigan team at your own risk.

Isaiah Livers #2 of the Michigan Wolverines celebrates his teams Big 10 championship after defeating the Michigan State Spartans 69-50 at Crisler Arena on March 04, 2021 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (2021 Getty Images)

About the Author: