Before heading the Maui Invitational, Michigan head coach John Beilein said the Wolverines “weren’t a good team yet” but they are getting better.
After a heartbreaking loss to LSU in the opener of the tournament U-M let get away, the Wolverines were able to close out the game against VCU and maybe figured something out.
North Carolina made sure to open those questions again.
U-M played right with the Tar Heels until the closing minutes of the first half when UNC pushed out an 11-0 run and never looked back.
Then U-M returned to the Crisler Center and played some of its best basketball against Indiana to win by double figures, starting hot and controlling the game throughout.
So when the Wolverines started off by opening a 20-point advantage against Ohio State last Monday, Dec. 4, with 1:31 to play in the first half, it looked like the Wolverines had something figured out.
Instead the Buckeyes ended the half on a 7-0 run, which led to a 26-3 run to guide a comeback and beat U-M 71-62 in Columbus.
Then Saturday came and another part of the series Beilein called “the hardest five-game stretch he’s had at Michigan” continued with UCLA.
U-M made self-inflicted errors throughout the game, but UCLA countered with many of their own and the Wolverines completed a 15-point second half comeback to win in overtime.
Are you seeing a trend here?
U-M has shown flashes of some very effective basketball and at other times has shown flashes of some of the worst basketball by a Beilein coached team.
It’s hard to figure out what is making this team go, but it might just be mentally.
Go back and look at the tape. When U-M forward Duncan Robinson missed a layup and Theo Pinson made one on the other end just seven seconds later, UNC went on an 11-0 run nearing halftime and never looked back.
Against OSU, Buckeye’s Jae’Sean Tate slammed down a monster dunk with 43 seconds to go in the first half, ending on a 7-0 run which eventually continued into the debacle Michigan had.
For both of those unique sequences, the crowd nearly took the roof off the building and the home teams fed off of it.
U-M has done the same thing with its home court advantage.
When U-M guard Zavier Simpson had a Trey Burke-esque steal in the closing seconds against the Bruins to help lead them to overtime, arguably the Crisler Center’s best crowd of the 2017-18 season was given new life and U-M used it as an advantage throughout the remainder of the game.
Tonight, when the Wolverines finish off this daunting five game portion of their schedule against Texas (6-2), that crowd won’t be there. It will be the five faces on the floor and along the U-M bench that will be cheering for the Wolverines.
The rest of the crowd, will be a sea of burnt orange and white hoping to doom the Wolverines again.
Players like Charles Matthews and Moritz Wagner, who combined for 43 points last Saturday against UCLA will be looked to lead the charge again.
Slumping seniors Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Robinson will be called on once again to find themselves in tough situations. Simpson and freshman guard Eli Brooks will be used to play beyond their years in the early season.
It’s just the best rotation U-M has and it’s what Beilein continues to go back to.
The Longhorns will be without their best shooter and leading scorer, sophomore guard Andrew Jones, for the game and have struggled to shoot the ball this season.
However, UT had the defense that fell in the top-25 a season ago and added Mo Bamba who is one of the nations best rim protectors. The Longhorns are blocking 16.8 percent of their opponents two-point shots (14th) and an opponent 43.2 percent effective field goal percentage (14th).
Nevertheless, buckets won’t be easy to come by tonight for the Wolverines even if the Longhorns struggle without their star underclassman.
Tonight, it will be about how U-M reacts to adversity against a quality opponent when they lose a lead or UT makes a big play and amplifies the crowd.
It will be about ending this five-game stretch on a winning note. It will be about helping U-M’s NCAA tournament RPI with a quality road win.
But maybe most importantly, it will finally be figuring out what the “leaders” on U-M’s team can handle away from Ann Arbor.