On Sunday afternoon, something a little unfamiliar happened to the Michigan Wolverines and their fans. They lost. That’s right. After 16 straight wins to open the season, matching the best start in the history of the program, Michigan was tripped up on the home court of their arch rivals, the Ohio State Buckeyes. Perhaps worse yet, the 56-53 loss was ugly, it ended Michigan’s hopes of entering this week on top of the college basketball world after they had become the last undefeated team following Duke’s loss, and it exposed some potential flaws in John Beilein’s team. Truth be told, the final score could have been a blowout after Ohio State raced out to a 21-point lead just 13 minutes into the first half.
So what should the response be for Michigan fans? Some have taken to social media to voice their displeasure with the team, notably berating freshman Nik Stauskas, who finished the game scoreless on three shots, to the point that he tweeted, “Can’t even read my mentions because of all the negativity thrown at me.” They called him “horrible” and surmised that “there’s no way Nik Stauskas should be starting for Michigan.” Others have questioned if Michigan’s number two ranking entering the game was legitimate, saying that the non-conference season was an aberration caused by beating up on bad teams.
The fact is, however, that this was Michigan’s first loss since last March, the first time the Maize and Blue have fallen in seventeen games. Seventeen! Certainly there is some reason to be concerned after the poor first half and Michigan’s failure to finish off a comeback late in the second, but fans need to take a deep breath and think about expectations entering this season while also thinking about past seasons.
When John Beilein moved to Ann Arbor six years ago to take over the basketball program, fans would have rejoiced to know that Michigan would be a top-five team in the country in the 2012-13 season. In fact, I would wager that six years ago, most fans complaining about the loss yesterday didn’t consider themselves fans in the darker times and would have struggled to name more than one player on Beilein’s first team.
It’s a testament to how well Beilein has done in his short time here that people have a hard time accepting a loss like this. No one wants to lose any game, but that is simply unrealistic. Teams play bad games, even the best teams in the country. The last three National Champions, in fact, had already lost an average of two games before this Michigan team lost at all.
I am not trying to make excuses for Sunday’s loss by any means; there is just no reason to be extremely worried at this juncture. Michigan is still an incredibly young team that relies on four freshmen to play significant roles, and the fifth freshman, Spike Albrecht, was actually the only one that looked comfortable in the hostile environment, recording a career-high seven points in the first half alone. And with no disrespect to Bradley or a crippled Northwestern team, this road game was always going to be the first road game to really challenge the Wolverines this season; the crowd was loud and the Buckeye defense was worlds above what either of those two teams could provide.
Most left Michigan for dead before the halftime horn blew and already started preparing their ill-advised comments toward anyone and everyone associated with the program. In the second half, however, the Wolverines showed that the hate mail would have to be held onto, if for just 20 minutes longer, by staging a steady comeback, silencing the crowd minute by minute and eventually tying the game up with six minutes to go. And even though the attempt fell just short, the effort Michigan showed while chipping away at the lead proved to me that Michigan is not a team to be dismissed by any means. A number of teams in the same situation would have given up and mentally quit by halftime after trailing by such a large margin early, but Michigan closed out the first half on a nice run and came out in the second with renewed energy on both ends of the ball.
Throughout my four years in college, from 2008 to 2012, I spent my time attending basketball games with sometimes no more than 75 or 100 other students, most of them my good friends because everyone knew each other. Most nights I watched college basketball for those first three years and cheered against any potential end-of-year bubble team with a passion, because I knew Michigan was probably going to need a little bit of help when March rolled around just to squeeze into the tournament. That freshman year in 2009, the Wolverines went dancing by the thinnest of margins and beat Clemson in the first round. Two years later, and just two years ago now, the Wolverines again used some magic dust to fight into the field of 68 as an 8-seed, then proceeded to record the biggest blowout in any 8/9 game ever played in the Tournament.
With one loss for Michigan in mid-January this year, the worrying and over-reacting needs to stop. No Big Ten road game is going to be an easy win, especially when it comes on the home court of a huge rival that is itself a top-15 team. The Wolverines are going to be just fine and will learn from their mistakes in Sunday’s loss. It will be hard for any team on the schedule the rest of the way to limit this offensively-gifted squad to under 40 percent shooting from the field, and you will likely never see Michigan’s top four scorers combine to shoot just 30 percent themselves.
College basketball, and life in general, is a game of ups and downs. Sometimes the highs are very high and the lows are very low. This season’s roller coaster just took its first dip on the track all year and left a few riders behind. If Michigan ends up at ground level in a couple weeks, feel free to abandon ship. I, on the other hand, will continue to ride in the front cart as it undoubtedly climbs toward the clouds as the season rolls on.