(This is an opinion piece by Maize n Brew’s staff writer Andrew McDonald)
The Wolverines arrive at the Lahaina Civic Center in Hawaii for the Maui Jim Maui Invitational, a tournament played traditionally around Thanksgiving to open the College basketball season.
While many people around this time of the year are near their families and friends, the Wolverines were about 4,500 miles from the place they currently call home — Ann Arbor.
However, what Michigan learned over the course of these three games may be something they can look back on in March and be “thankful” for.
Michigan enters the day not really knowing who they are. New faces, new roles and a lot of talented pieces to a puzzle John Beilein is still trying to put together.
LSU is a team that finished 10-21 (2-16 SEC) in the 2016-17 season, dropping 17 of its final 18 games to end the season. Michigan is coming off of a Big Ten Tournament Title and Sweet 16 runs.
But now, the teams are different. Players graduated and moved on, Will Wade is now the coach for the Tigers after coaching with VCU before accepting this job.
What difference did Wade make? A huge one.
Michigan trailed nearly the entire game, clawing closer and closer but couldn't get the big shot to fall until the player who couldn't make a shot all game sunk the biggest attempt of the game.
Duncan Robinson netted a corner triple and gave Michigan a 55-53 lead with 8:42 to go, forcing an LSU timeout with the Wolverines heading to the sideline fired up around Robinson.
Michigan would hold the lead for awhile, appearing like they knew what they had to do to control the game until the last second ticked off.
But that's when we learned more about where this team was at.
Tiger guard Brandon Rachel knocked the ball away from freshman Eli Brooks and threw it forward to Skylar Mays for the breakaway jam to give LSU a 76-74 lead with 1:08 left.
Wade’s team had more energy and enthusiasm, it was clear.
Michigan committed no turnovers for over 18 minutes into the second half. In the closing seconds, they had two that cost them the game.
Charles Matthews, who recorded a game-high 28 points, missed a free throw that could've tied the game, and then Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman was forced to take a bad shot at the horn.
Michigan didn't just lose, they beat themselves. After showing maturity and signs of a team that could finish with eight minutes to go, just over six minutes later, they looked lost.
Approaching 9 p.m. on the island (2 a.m. in Michigan) as the game finished, the Wolverines had around 18 hours to sleep and prepare for a Chaminade — a Division II school that won’t count on the Wolverines final win/loss record.
It doesn't matter how you try to sugar coat it, Michigan didn't travel all this way to play against a team that wouldn't help its resume come NCAA Tournament selection time.
So what could the Wolverines get out of a game like this?
Confidence, and if you ask me, that is exactly what they got.
Like games against opponents where Michigan was heavily favored to open the season (North Florida, Central Michiagn, Southern Mississippi), they left no bit of second guessing for who clearly won this game.
The Wolverines dominated from start to finish, breaking the century mark for the first time this season, and downing the Silverswords 102-64.
It was clear by the faces of the Michigan players they weren't satisfied with playing in this game, as their celebrations were short and they had more of “strictly business” look all game.
Matthews didn't miss a shot (8-for-8) from the field, scoring 22 points to lead Michigan again and was starting to show the world he can lead a basketball team.
Robinson bounced back from making just one shot by burying four 3-pointers while Abdur-Rahkman poured in 17 points.
The team looked more complete, but what did it really mean? How much better could you really get from playing a school like Chaminade?
That had to be on the mind of the Michigan players as they got back on the bus to head back to their hotel, preparing for the third game in three days.
This trip to paradise all of the sudden was pressure filled, as the Wolverines needed this win over VCU to bring back any value for its tournament resume.
The fifth and sixth place game might not be the one most people pay attention to when it comes to a national audience, but for the Wolverines and Rams, this game meant something.
A quality win was needed needed for Michigan, and a loss for VCU would drop them to .500 on the campaign. There was a lot more than just a fifth place finish behind the lines of this game.
The Rams started like they wanted it more, going on a 9-2 run to open the game. Michigan looked tired, needing a gut-check to find the energy to take this game over before it slipped away.
They did just that, responding by reclaiming the lead early in the half and taking a 36-30 lead into the locker room.
7-foot-1 forward Jon Teske showed what he could bring to the table with Moritz Wagner in foul trouble, playing key minutes and showing a strong defensive presence in the opening half.
Then, it happened again.
With Michigan controlling the game, holding the lead until the midway point of the second half, the Rams downed three-straight triples and went on to take a 51-49 lead with 9:19 to go.
During the VCU run, the Wolverines were scoreless over a 3:40 stretch. It looked like the wheels were falling off and they didn't have time to pull over and bolt them back on.
Wagner had four fouls and had to leave the game, Matthews was battling through an injury and couldn't make a free throw.
Then, the guy who didn't show up in the opener of the tournament, rose to the occasion.
Robinson downed two back-to-back triples, giving Michigan a 57-53 lead with four minutes to go.
That still wasn't enough.
Brooks missed a defensive assignment, left a wide open 3-ball for Mike’l Simms who didn’t miss it, leading VCU to a 60-57 advantage with 1:59 to go.
The scenario was all to familiar. Flashbacks to the opening game against LSU when the Wolverines folded in crunch time. It all seemed to be happening again.
Not this time, not for Abdur-Rahkman or Wagner. They wouldn't let it happen.
Starring down the reality of heading back to Ann Arbor with a lot of work to be done to save a season, Abdur-Rahkman nailed a step-back 3-pointer to tie the game at 60 all.
Then Wagner, who had been challenged by the physicality of VCU’s bigs all game long, responded when it mattered most with an and-one bucket then a 3-pointer to seal a 68-60 victory for Michigan.
Beielin said before this tournament, “I don’t know what we will do in (Maui), but I do know we will get better”.
While the loss to LSU may still hurt come March, what Michigan gained by the end of this tournament was a reality check and a look in the mirror at who they are now.
They grew in three days from a team that couldn't finish, to one coming up big when they needed it most.
While this team still is a long way from being great, what they gained mentally from Maui may go a long way for the remainder of this season and give them something to be “thankful” for after all.