The Wolverine

February 2019

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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Page 38 of 75

FEBRUARY 2019 THE WOLVERINE 39 BY CHRIS BALAS M ichigan head coach John Beilein didn't mince words when acknowledging the strength of the Big Ten in late November with conference play about to begin. League teams had been extremely impressive in non- conference play, to the point that one analyst from The Washington Post had 10 teams on track to make the NCAA Tournament as of Jan. 9, one shy of the Big East's record of 11 set in 2011. At that point, they reported, Big Ten teams were outscoring opponents by a nation-wide high of 15.7 points per game after adjusting for strength of schedule — a slate they noted was toughest among all leagues. Big Ten opponents were 5.5 points per game better than average, compared to fourth in adjusted scoring margin and fifth in strength of schedule a year ago. "The league is going to be a monster if anybody has been watching it," Beilein said during his radio show in late November. "It's going to be a monster. "It is going to be a difficult schedule. I think this year somebody might win it [with] like a 12-8 [record] or something … it's going to be that competitive." As of Jan. 21, nearing the halfway point of the Big Ten slate, only four teams had less than three losses in conference play. U-M's 64-54 loss at Wisconsin Jan. 19 had many switching their sights to Michigan State, which had looked unbeatable at times in amassing an 8-0 record. The Spartans had dominated teams at home, winning all by at least 14 points, and had the most impressive road wins of the early going in winning at Ohio State and Nebraska, which had won 20 straight on its home court. U-M was right behind the rival Spartans with a 6-1 league record, though Beilein admitted his team had a fortunate schedule in the early going. Four of the Wolverines' first six league games had been at home, and two of the three road games were against teams in Northwestern and Illinois that were young and rebuilding. Michigan escaped Evanston with a 62-60 win in early December and handled the Illini by 10 on their home court before the Badgers finally ended the Wolverines' 17-game win streak to start the season. Beilein hadn't focused on being undefeated, insisting before the trip to Madison there would be some stumbles along the way, and he was right. Though disappointed, he predicted the loss would only help in the long run. "I think we had some film sessions that we realized we didn't play well, but it doesn't dig in like this [loss] will," Beilein said. "But it wasn't exactly easy when you're trying to get your guys to run because you're mad at them after they just beat Northwestern by 20 points. That's hard to do as a coach, so we didn't do it. "We're going to learn from it. We've got a lot of weaknesses, and we've got to shore them up." TOUGH TESTS AHEAD And come January, those short- comings are all on film. Scouting has evolved dramatically over the last decade, to the point that computer programs like Synergy give coaches unbelievably advanced scouting reports on each player from every team. Have a point guard that can't go left? Any decently prepared team is going to overplay him to his right. Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich kept his overmatched team in a game by sagging defenders to the paint, essentially giving some U-M players short jumpers they weren't willing to take. Michigan pulled away for a 71-50 win, but it was only 28-21 — and ugly — at the half. There was a lot his team would learn after the loss to the Badgers, Beilein said, adding this was never a team without weaknesses, even during its 17-0 start in which it was destroying opponents. "Our kids are focused on getting better. There was a stretch when we came off some of those big wins and didn't guard people as well as we had been," Beilein said. "Egos were never an issue for us, but we knew bottom- quadrant losses were ones we didn't want to have, and we came close to having a few." At the same time, when it's been good, it's been really good. When focused and playing well, the Wolverines have proven they can beat anybody in the country. Michigan's blowout road win over a solid Villanova team (73-46 Nov. 14) was the first inkling this team had a chance to be very good, Beilein said. "We were down at halftime to Holy Cross a week before that. Norfolk State had given us a tough game," he recalled. "All of a sudden we're playing an elite team that had lost a lot of guys … we had, too, but they lost more than us. "They said, 'We're not that team that was down to Holy Cross. We can play better, do more things.' That gave us a lot of confidence, I think. We went right after that on two days rest to similar success against George Washington and Providence back to back. We came out of that probably feeling pretty good we're in there; now what do we do with it? We have some pieces." But "pieces" don't always equate to wins. There are several factors that determine a team's final record, and if the past is any indication, there could be — probably will be — more adversity to come. The injury bug is one area in which the Wolverines had been fortunate AHEAD OF SCHEDULE Michigan's Loss At Wisconsin Didn't Derail Its Big Ten Title Hopes In the first 18 games of the season, Michigan outscored its opponents by an average of 15.5 points per game. PHOTO BY LON HORWEDEL

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