Michigan's energetic identity peaks in time for Big Ten title

NEW YORK –- The man whom teammates sometimes refer to as the "Big Sleep" was wide awake Sunday night at center court in Madison Square Garden. Jon Teske, Michigan's soft-spoken 7-footer, pounded his chest and hollered at a crowd chanting his name after a thunderous dunk that served as the emphatic climax of his team's second consecutive Big Ten tournament championship.

Teske's two-handed finish gave the Wolverines an 18-point lead over Purdue with six minutes to play in the title game. For Teske, it capped a 14-point performance in a 75-66 win for a sophomore who is typically content to linger in the shadows of a team full of burgeoning personalities. For Michigan, it capped a stretch of four wins in four days that removed any doubt that it will enter the NCAA tournament as one of the nation's hottest and most dangerous teams.

Michigan finished fifth in the Big Ten regular-season standings but has lost only once since February began. The Wolverines have nine straight victories, including the last two against the league's top teams -- Purdue and rival Michigan State, the group traditionally known for peaking at this time of year.

Coach John Beilein has made a strong case for Mr. March in the past two years. His teams are 11-2 in the postseason during that time as he adjusts to the skills and personalities that reveal themselves during the course of a season.

"We had all new leadership," Beilein said when comparing this year's tournament champs to the 2017 team. “Players had to step up. I think it wasn't until we got almost to February that our coaching staff just figured out a little bit what we could do and what we could expect."

What Michigan can expect now is energy by the bucketful. And more than any team Beilein has coached in Ann Arbor, that energy has been infectious on both ends of the floor.

Teske's big dunk sent freshman Jordan Poole dancing toward center court to meet him and sophomore Zavier Simpson -- a feisty point guard who has taken the reins of this team in the past month -- flexing close behind them. Moe Wagner, Michigan's more established big man and energy provider, couldn't contain his smile. A few minutes earlier, he had knocked down back-to-back 3s in dramatic fashion to stretch Michigan's lead to double digits and make the final 10 minutes more of a celebration than a stressful race to the finish line.

Beilein said the mutual trust that has served as the foundation of his team's emerging identity took time to develop this season. With Simpson especially, there was a feeling-out process while the sophomore worked his way from a backup role earlier this season to a driving force for their current run. His defense helped change the dynamic of Saturday's semifinal win against Michigan State. Then he scored 10 points and added five assists (including the pass that unleashed Teske's slam) in the championship game against Purdue.

"We're pretty confident," Simpson said Sunday night. "We've just got to keep playing and keep doing smart things."

The trick for Michigan will be keeping that momentum rolling during an unprecedented break in action. It will be at least 11 days before the Wolverines take the court for their next game, thanks to a conference tournament that played out a week early so it could reserve Madison Square Garden as its stage.

These will be uncharted waters for all four Big Ten teams likely to be playing in the NCAA tournament later this month. While it's a thin group of participants for the conference, all four have the potential to do some damage. Michigan State remains among the country's most talented groups. Purdue can string together wins when its inside-outside attack is taking advantage of both dimensions. Ohio State features one of the country's breakout stars in Keita Bates-Diop. And, of course, Michigan has emerged as sharpest of that group the past week in New York.

"It's going to be kind of weird, but we've got to embrace it," Simpson said when asked how he plans to handle the long layoff. "We'll do the smart things in that time to get better."

A long rest could be a help to some. Beilein was quick to point out that plenty of teams that usually get their conference tournament done early have punched above their weight class in the NCAA tournament in past years. He conceded that it would be nice to keep the good times rolling right now, but he is no position to argue with the benefits of having more time.

"In a perfect world that would be great [to keep playing]," Beilein said. "But playing in this arena in front of that crowd, which I feel like was very pro-Michigan, that's a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us. I think it'll be worth the wait."

If the past couple of seasons have taught Beilein's teams anything, it should be that patience is often rewarded.