Last week, I wrote a thing on the heels of the Indiana game talking about the importance of the remainder of the now finished four-game stretch of doom, particularly for guys like Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III. Now, after Michigan's third loss in its last four outings, those trips to New York are but a distant memory.
No, all is not lost. These sorts of things happen, especially when you've been confronted with the schedule that Michigan has in the last 10 days. The good news is that the most difficult portion of the schedule is behind Michigan now. The recently completed 4-game stretch, without looking into this further, has to have been the toughest such stretch in the country thus far. To recap, Michigan: 1) lost a tough one at Indiana despite getting ambushed at the start 2) gritted out an OT victory against Ohio State at Crisler, aided largely by Tim Hardaway Jr.'s sharpshooting 3) lost in OT at the Kohl Center after a ridiculous Ben Brust shot to tie it and 4) got blown out at the Breslin Center to cap this mini-campaign through the Sahara-esque portion of the greater journey.
Logically, the Wisconsin loss hurts more because of the nonsensical way in which it was lost. Viscerally, the Michigan State loss resonates far more, for the simple fact that it was like watching the painful removal of a scabbed over piece of skin. Michigan State, the nefarious anticoagulant in question, removed the scab of inexperience, allowing Michigan to bleed out helplessly in front of a supercharged Breslin crowd.
Fortunately, Michigan has Penn State at home on Sunday, allowing for a solid four-day rest period, one that Michigan badly needs at this point in the season. At this point, the Big Ten race is far from the forefront of my mind, as a fan. Sure, it is frustrating to be two games back with six games to go after the historic start that Michigan rattled off. But, in the end, if Michigan puts up a solid Big Ten tourney showing and wins a few games in the Big Dance, I'll say "great season" and move on.
With that said, those things are not going to happen if Michigan plays like it did last night. The Wolverines stuck with the Spartans for about nine minutes despite a shaky start, down 20-15 at the 11:05 mark. Throughout the remaining 75% of the game, the Spartans outscored the Wolverines 55-37.
You watched it, so there's not much used in going into too much detail. Michigan got dominated in each of the four factors, committing a whopping 16 turnovers (to MSU's 8), attempting six free throws (to MSU's 17), shooting just 39.6% from the field (MSU--48.4%) and a rebounding margin of -12, including an ORB% differential of (UM--18.7%, MSU--43.7%).
All of these are concerning, especially the turnovers and the rebounding. It's not like we didn't know about Michigan's inability, for whatever reason, to get to the line. Additionally, we also know that Michigan can often devolve into the desperate perimeter-fest that it was in losing efforts during the Novak/Douglass era.
On the other hand, if Michigan has done anything well (and yes, despite last night, Michigan has done many, many things well this season), it's value the ball, and they simply did not do that last night. Credit has to go to MSU's defense, but some of those plays (e.g. Mitch McGary just throwing it out of bounds like when a quarterback throws it to a guy downfield only to have it land in an unoccupied stretch of green like a parachutist because that guy went somewhere else) were unforced.
Surprise: that's what happens when you're playing at a place like Breslin while starting three true freshmen, two of whom have been struggling mightily of late anyway. In a sense, my prediction for this game (a 2-point Michigan loss) and the accompanying feelings of intuitive doubt were accurate in concept but, uh, not quite in scope (to say the least).
I have no use for discussions of a supposed lack of all-caps things like HEART or GRIT or KILLER INSTINCT. These are things better left to ESPN message board commenters and, amusingly, bad ESPN college basketball personalities. This was not a matter of not trying or Michigan State "wanting it more." Sometimes, you just get beat. If last year's Kentucky team can lose, anybody can, especially a tired, freshman-laden squad like Michigan.
On the bright side, Michigan gets the ultimate coagulant, the 8-15 (0-11) Penn State Nittany Lions on Sunday. A win won't teach a thing, of course, but, to hypocritically delve into the vault of sporting cliches, it will be nice to see some shots go down and transition opportunities ending in GRIII thunderdunks. It will be a largely meaningless event, but sometimes you just need to do things that make you feel good, like watching Space Jam several times in a row or wondering exactly how many times Brady Hoke thought about chicken wings during yesterday's evisceration.
There is much basketball to be played, and Michigan has the opportunity to make up some ground, what with IU and MSU coming to Crisler early next month. More importantly, however, is the question of whether or not Michigan is the team that started 20-1 or the one that has looked palpably vulnerable of late. Is Michigan State 25-30 points "better" than Michigan? Surely not, but the more important question is, on a neutral court, is MSU a better team than Michigan? After watching a relatively poor offensive rebounding team like MSU kill the Wolverines on the boards, get to the basket with ease and shut down Michigan's startlingly one-dimensional offensive attack, it's easy to say that yes, they very well might be despite the general perceptions about each team to date.
Of course, who knows. If Michigan wins out, scoring victories against MSU and IU and finishing 14-4 in the B1G, maybe this will be remembered as a statistical anomaly, a blip on the radar to be cast into the "hey, that's college basketball for you" pile of explanatory sayings.
For now, though, perhaps some recalibration is in order. This team is without a doubt superior to last year's in terms of talent and every other conceivable metric that exists. However, it was difficult not to have horrible flashbacks to last year's flailing losses at Ohio State and Michigan State while watching last night. That's not a good thing. This team is still probably going places in March, but I can't write that with the unassailable certainty that I could have two weeks ago.
But, so it goes. Let us hope this was the nadir, an inflection point beginning a steady climb back up off of the cold, hard mat on which Michigan lay, knocked out, last night.