The TSX Files: Wolverines get it done on road

The Wolverines played their way into contention for a share of the Big Ten title in the final weekend of the season by turning back Illinois on the road 72-61 on March 1.

Wolverines get it done on road

The Wolverines played their way into contention for a share of the Big Ten title in the final weekend of the season by turning back Illinois on the road 72-61 on March 1. Michigan moved to 22-8 overall and 12-5 in the Big Ten, a game back of conference leader Michigan State.

The Wolverines need to close the season with win at Penn State on March 4 and then get some help from the most unlikely ally -- dreaded rival Ohio State. The Buckeyes need to beat the Spartans in East Lansing the same day in order to then share the title with Michigan State, and Michigan, if the Wolverines are victorious in Happy Valley.

In the crucial win over Illinois, the Wolverines got a boost from a player who has struggled most of the season to fit comfortably into that role of dominant performer -- guard Tim Hardaway Jr.

Hardaway, who throughout Michigan's extended run at a very improbable Big Ten title has had his performances bounce up and down the chart, scored 25 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in the win over the Illini. It had to be a relief for Hardaway and his teammates to see him rise to the occasion in such an important moment.

The gifted son of the former NBA guard of the same name had been spectacular one night this season, and then nearly invisible the next. He has made the game look easy on some occasions, and at other times everything has been a struggle.

Hardaway had 26 points in the Big Ten opener against Penn State, and then trailed off to just seven the next time out against Minnesota. He had three 19-point games in Big Ten play, but also turned in nights with four, six, and seven points.

In games against Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska and Purdue, Hardaway went a combined 0-for-27 from outside the three-point arc. He has attempted a team-high of 163 three-pointers, but is shooting a team-worst 26 percent from outside the arc. To highlight what a contradiction Hardaway can be, he went 4-of-4 from outside the arc in the win over Illinois.

Michigan coach John Beilein said the issue with Hardaway is that the 6-5 sophomore puts too much pressure on himself to excel.

"He really wants to be the ultimate perfect player, and no one is," Beilein said recently. "He's been starting since the day he walked in here, and there's a lot on a player (like him) with a father that has a tremendous legacy."

As they move on to the season finale against Penn State on March 4, and the Big Ten tournament and the NCAA Tournament after that, the Wolverines are going to require a consistent, significant output from Hardaway to get past the tougher opponents. His track record from this season indicates he might be able to produce that, but it is no certainty.

TRENDING: Forward Evan Smotrycz had the Michigan faithful excited when he ripped off three straight double-double games in late December, just as the Big Ten season was getting started. But Smotrycz quickly tailed off, and had just two double-figure scoring games over the course of the next 16 Big Ten games, with no double-figure rebounding games. He twice failed to score in Big Ten games, and had three other conference games where he scored just two points. The diminished contribution from Smotrycz and the resulting drop in his playing time has made it tougher for the Wolverines to defend inside, and placed more of the scoring burden on Michigan's already over-worked guard corps.

--at Penn State, March 4
KEY MATCHUPS: One of the Big Ten's worst teams has collected all of its conference wins at home, so don't expect the Nittany Lions to be a pushover. G Tim Frazier averages nearly 19 points per game and if he gets started early, the crowd could be a factor in this game. G Jermaine Marshall averages around 10 points per game and makes the Penn State backcourt the primary weapon for the Lions. Michigan's assignment here is to get off to a good start and never let Penn State get the sense it can win this one. Making shots has never been more critical for the Wolverines, if they are to move into the Big Ten tournament with any momentum.

FUTURES MARKET: The biggest difference for Michigan, looking ahead to the 2012-13 season, will be in the leadership area. Senior G Stu Douglass and senior G/F Zack Novak will leave and Michigan coach John Beilein will call on G Tim Hardaway Jr. and F Evan Smotrycz, along with C/F Jordan Morgan, to take the next step to guide this group. That trio, next year's junior class, will be expected to bring Michigan a Big Ten title before they are done, so that leadership role will come along with the pressure of increased expectations in the future.


--F Jon Horford was stuck in limbo for more than a month, but his season officially came to an end recently when Michigan coach John Beilein announced that Horford would be shut down for the remainder of the season. Horford suffered a stress fracture to his right foot in December, worked to rehab the injury, then dressed for a number of games over the final month of the Big Ten season, but did not play. Beilein said playing Horford this late in the year and losing a year of eligibility would not be "fair to him." Since he played in just nine games early in the season, Horford is eligible for a medical redshirt that would allow him to retain three years of eligibility.

--PG Trey Burke kept up the momentum in his unofficial campaign to run away with Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors by helping lead his team to a 72-61 win over Illinois on March 1 in a game the Wolverines had to have in order to stay in contention for a piece of the Big Ten title. Burke scored 21 points, hitting 7-of-13 from the field and 5-of-6 at the line. He added five assists and three rebounds in the victory that moved Michigan into a tie with Ohio State for second place in the Big Ten, just a game back of Michigan State with one game left in the season.

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