- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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EVANSTON, Ill. -- When Michigan wanted to become one of the major players in the Big Ten in the spring of 2007, it turned to a coach who had only weeks before earned the respect of no less than Geno Auriemma for leading a great mid-major program into Hartford, Conn., and walking off the court with a halftime lead against Connecticut in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Almost four years later, Kevin Borseth might still be a stranger in a strange land as he stalks the sideline at the helm of one of two "big six" conference programs in his native state. But the marriage of the quirky bald guy and the bastion of bigness has the Wolverines moving toward a tournament they haven't been a part of for a long time.
With victories last week at Northwestern and at home against Purdue, Michigan improved to 5-2 in conference play, just a game behind league leader Michigan State. A win at Ohio State on Thursday would give the Wolverines a season sweep of the Buckeyes after losing 14 in a row against their rivals, not to mention a third conference road victory on the heels of the win in Evanston and an earlier victory against a ranked Iowa side. A team that hasn't reached the NCAA tournament since 2001, which was also the last time it finished with a winning record in conference play, Michigan is poised to improve on last season's run to the WNIT semifinals with a spot in the bigger postseason extravaganza in March.
Just don't expect Borseth to sound like a guy succumbing to delusions of grandeur.
"Quite honestly, I'll tell you what, we're hacking and scratching and doing everything we can every game just to try and stay in games," Borseth said after the victory at Northwestern. "Any time you can get wins in this league, whether it's at home or on the road, it's huge. And, of course, getting them on the road is even bigger because we haven't done that too much in the past."
The Wolverines didn't win much of anything much of anywhere prior to Borseth's arrival, going just 4-44 in the Big Ten in the three seasons preceding his move. But even while winning 20 conference games during his first three seasons, Michigan didn't win more than two conference road games in any season -- and it never earned the second victory earlier than Feb. 24, essentially on the eve of the Big Ten tournament.
But if Michigan finds itself in unfamiliar territory, or at least territory grown dusty during years of neglect, there is something familiar about the way the team is winning. For eight seasons at Green Bay, and before that at Division II Michigan Tech, Borseth won more than 70 percent of his games by coaching teams with rosters that had more of an all-county look than All-American. His teams played defense, shot the ball efficiently with range and took care of the ball, offsetting the more-than-occasional rebounding deficit.
So it was a bit surprising that after pulling off a remarkable turnaround to go 19-14 (9-9 in the Big Ten) in the new coach's first season, Michigan stumbled to a 10-20 record in 2008-09 and looked a lot more like a mediocre major team than an elite mid-major. It shot 38 percent, allowed opponents to shoot 40 percent and ran in the red on both turnover margin and assist-to-turnover ratio. All of those numbers began to trend back in the right direction last season, but it was only this season that Borseth's team went back to playing the kind of basketball, particularly on defense, that originally earned him a call from Michigan.
"I don't know how to do the other thing, I really don't," Borseth said of changing his defense. "It doesn't look good to me. People spend way too much time in the paint for me, and we don't rebound very well when we do that. And when we're a little more aggressive, we have some opportunity to get some scramble rebounds and some hustle points. More so than when we sit behind people and take punches. Muhammad Ali would lay on the ropes late in his career and take punches; we just can't do that. We're not strong enough to do it."
The result was on display as Michigan knocked Northwestern, which entered the game with a 10-1 record at home and a week removed from an 11-point win against Ohio State, completely out of its rhythm from the opening tip. The Wildcats rushed shots, turned over the ball and shot just 36 percent from the floor in the first half -- 21 percent by players other than Amy Jaeschke. Meanwhile, the Wolverines didn't commit a turnover until the game was more than 11 minutes old and got 3-pointers from five players in claiming a 12-point halftime lead en route to a 76-67 win.
It was more of the same two days later, as Michigan committed just eight turnovers, forced 20 and attempted 10 more field goals than Purdue in a 57-45 win.
"We're probably more similar in style [this season] to what we've been in the Green Bay era," Borseth said. "We're doing a lot more things that resemble what we did in Green Bay. I think kids now are starting to figure it out. They're starting to get quicker, get a little bit more aggressive, get more used to the style. It will be interesting to see as the year rolls along if they can keep up this pace and play with the same aggressiveness."
It is a group effort, with eight players averaging between 6.3 and 11.6 points per game (including Nya Jordan, who hasn't played since suffering a knee injury in December). And at this point, most of those players are Borseth's recruits, players like emerging star sophomore Jenny Ryan, the 2009 Michigan Miss Basketball who has some of the best hands the man in charge says he has ever coached. But it's also a group led by Veronica Hicks, a senior who committed before Borseth took over but who now embodies, in both her athletic and academic honors, what the program can be under his watch.
"She does a lot of things that we like to do," Borseth said. "She's got the ability to take it to the basket, she's got the ability to score around the basket and we've developed the ability to shoot the ball from the arc. So she does a lot of things. Defensively, she fits in really well. The kid keeps people in front of her, she's long, she tips passes, she's got a really good sense to get to the ball and make steals"
During games, Borseth still looks like a guy completely unaware of anything but the back-and-forth action in front of him. At Northwestern, his sports information director had to grab him with both hands and physically steer him back in the opposite direction when he was set to go to the locker room at halftime without first stopping for a television interview.
There ought to be a sign warning "You must be this tall to sit on the bench" for anyone in proximity to the roller-coaster of emotions he goes through with each possession -- alternately kneeling, standing, stalking or yelling out "No, no, no, no, no, no" when Hicks launches what he seems to consider an ill-advised, hasty 3-pointer.
Perhaps that single-minded focus is partly why he still seems like a bit of an odd fit at a place like Michigan as he talks of learning just how much recruiting determines success at this level, the salesmanship involved in fighting with other major-conference programs over the same pool of national-level recruits. Michigan is his home state, and the compensation can't be bad, but from the outside, it's still possible to wonder if he wasn't happiest scouring the small towns of Wisconsin and then taking his and beating yours.
"There's days when I say to myself, 'What did I get myself into?' But every time I get back on the court, you get back your competitive juices and they flow and you try to do the same thing you've always done," Borseth said. "It's all I know how to do. If I had to sell furniture or insurance or anything of that nature, I think I'd have to fold up tent.
"I love what I do. It's a lot of fun; I still have a passion. I love the kids, I love working with education."
And if he's not careful, he might turn Michigan into a major success.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
Kevin Borseth is perhaps best known for building one of the nation's top mid-major programs. But this season, he could be poised to turn Michigan into a major success.