Dec. 16, 2013
By Jenny Herstein, U-M Public & Media Relations
Michigan had a great opportunity on Saturday afternoon (Dec. 14) when No. 1 Arizona paid a visit to Crisler Center. The Wolverines had lost three games on the road: Iowa State, UNC-Charlotte and Duke. Now, the young team would have a chance to put their early defeats behind them and notch a signature win against the nation's top team on their home court.
For the majority of the game, the Wolverines looked primed to pull the upset, perhaps marking a turnaround in what has been an exceptionally difficult non-conference season. While shooting an even 50 percent from the floor, Michigan led the game from just under six minutes into the first half until a little more than two and a half minutes left in the contest. That's when Arizona's Rondae Hollis-Jefferson converted a three-point play to put the Wildcats back in the lead. From there, the final minutes were back-and-forth between the two teams, ultimately ending in a 72-70 defeat for the Wolverines.
With the loss, Michigan dropped to 6-4 on the season. To many fans, with high expectations after last season's team made a run to the Final Four in Atlanta, the defeat may seem to be yet another step backwards for the Wolverines. But head coach John Beilein's club views Saturday's near miss as anything but a setback.
While disappointed with the outcome, the Wolverines remained remarkably positive after the loss. They realized that their poised play against the Wildcats marked an important step in their development as a team.
"We've got a really young team. But that's college basketball nowadays. So we've got to mature and mature quickly," said sophomore Spike Albrecht. "And we have."
On Wednesday, Dec. 4, the Wolverines struggled to find their offense against Duke on the Blue Devils' home court in Druham, N.C. Shooting just 8-for-26 (31 percent) in the first half, Michigan got down early. As Duke's lead widened, the Wolverines' disposition sank further.
"You go into a hostile environment like Duke and, to be honest, we got hit right in the mouth," said Albrecht. "We didn't play our best basketball there. We weren't very poised and we were kind of complaining, looking around at each other and pouting a little bit."
The Wolverines lost that contest, 79-69.
On Saturday, not only did the Wolverines come closer to victory, controlling a large portion of the game, but there were tremendous strides in the team's mindset.
"Two weeks later, here we are against Arizona, the No. 1 team in the country, and we fought all the way to the end," said Albrecht. "No one was looking around. We were just out there taking care of business, playing hard."
Co-captain fifth year senior Jordan Morgan said he could see the team becoming more mature, "Just looking at where we've come from these past couple weeks, playing so many tough games, and seeing the growth and the ownership and some of the details that we missed a few weeks ago."
"We've grown a lot over the past two weeks and it's pretty visible out there," added Albrecht. "We've got guys communicating and huddling up. We're really taking ownership of this team. I like the direction we're going."
Despite having the lead for most of the game, Arizona was able to pull ahead and finish strong in the final three minutes, while the Wolverines failed to get a crucial stop. Michigan's players are learning how to play against top competition, but still have to learn how to close out close games, especially on defense. Yet, for a young team with a different makeup than last season's Final Four squad, mastering the game's fine details takes time.
"We've just got to continue to get better on defense," said Albrecht. "We couldn't get that one stop when we needed to. Continue to get better on the defensive glass. Those things we're working really hard on in practice, and we are getting better, but it's tough when we're playing really good teams."
"We practice really hard and we want to see results," said Beilein. "But we have to just continue to understand that these little things, the devil in the details of getting better, is huge. I told the guys if this was two weeks ago and this was Duke here or somebody else, we don't play to a last-possession game. We weren't ready for that at that time. We're getting better."
"There's just a few possessions here and there that didn't go our way," added Morgan. "But there was a lot of fight. The guys were doing some great things out there. That's something to be encouraged about."
The key for the Wolverines moving forward is to continue to learn while keeping their heads up. Coach Beilein has stressed how important it is for his players to avoid being sapped by negative comments on social media or in the press.
"Don't look at it. Avoid it," said Morgan. "Just focus on school, focus on basketball, and leave all that other stuff on the outside."
The Wolverines continue to take one game at a time, realizing that each loss in the non-conference season is a potential opportunity to improve ahead of tough contests in the Big Ten or the postseason.
"Let people say what they're going to say," said Morgan. "That's fine. We don't want to be number one right now. We want to be number one when it matters."
"There's no time for sulking," Albrecht added. "You've just got to continue to get better."