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Nicole Auerbach: It's a 'new season,' but will we see a new Michigan basketball team?

BY NICOLE AUERBACH
Daily Sports Editor
Published March 8, 2010

EAST LANSING — Go ahead, throw the kitchen sink at me.

Tell me the reason Michigan State won was because it was playing for a share of the Big Ten men’s basketball title.
Say that the Spartans needed to come out strong after a near loss to Penn State last week.

Pull out the now-unoriginal piece of wisdom that Michigan’s shots just don’t fall sometimes.

Sure, all those things are true, and I don’t want to take anything away from a very impressive Spartan performance. But after the two games the Wolverines played last week, was I too optimistic when I thought, “Hmm, maybe this won’t be a blowout”?

Michigan showed heart against Evan Turner and Ohio State a week ago, leading at halftime and never mailing it in, even when Turner turned in yet another Player-of-the-Year-worthy performance.

And then Wednesday came — the Wolverines’ final home game of the season. Against Minnesota, a team fighting to remain on the NCAA Tournament bubble, Michigan played spoiler in one of its best all-around efforts of the year. Again, the Wolverines showed that they hadn’t thrown in the towel.

Coming into Sunday’s game, I figured it could be close. The two teams battled through an epic one-point game in January, one that DeShawn Sims nearly won at the buzzer. How about a Round Two?

Quickly and painfully, Michigan State made sure the game’s outcome would never be questioned. Michigan didn’t just lose on Sunday — it was annihilated by a very focused, very talented Spartan squad.

I know this routine. Just when the Wolverines string together two decent games (yes, I’m including the loss at Ohio State as a decent performance), they fall apart for whatever reason. It could be an
opponent on fire, like Northwestern. It could be the scary confines of a hostile environment like the Kohl Center in Madison. Or it could be for seemingly no reason at all.

But at this point, it doesn’t matter why it happens that much anymore. It happens.

Sunday’s loss to Michigan State marked the end of a disappointing regular season for Michigan. All that we know for sure at this point is that the Wolverines will play in the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday afternoon against Iowa.

“You’ve got to put it all together and just take it one game at a time,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “One game at a time is the old cliché, but there’s Iowa, and then there’s somebody else.”

There are some Michigan fans out there holding out hope that the Wolverines can earn four straight victories, win the tournament and receive an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

And I suppose it’s fair to say, never count a Beilein-coached team out of its conference tournament. When he coached at Canisius and Richmond — and even West Virginia — he used conference tournament runs to pave the way for national tournament bids.

“That’s the way I’ve been coaching for most of my time,” Beilein said. “It’s the way it’s always been — you got to win that tournament.”

That mentality seems to have infiltrated the locker room, too. The players know that the postseason is its own beast, and it gives them confidence. That, coupled with a bit of hope, is enough to maintain a glimmer of optimism.

“It’s a completely new season,” sophomore Zack Novak said. “Regular season, we went up and down, up and down. Usually when we’d have big downs, we’d try to follow with an up. Hopefully we keep following that trend. Anything can happen at this point. We just need to put together a good week, and we’re hopeful.”

Still, I have a hard time believing that the Wolverines will suddenly arrive in Indianapolis for the Big Ten Tournament a different squad than they’ve been all season. Beilein admitted a four-game tournament is difficult. More so, this year. His team hasn’t won three games in a row against Division-I opponents all season.

Hope is a tricky thing. It isn’t always grounded in the past. Considering all that’s happened this rollercoaster season, why would the Wolverines be able to reel off four impressive wins this weekend, against teams that are clearly better? It’s hard to fathom.

I’d love to see Michigan prove me wrong. I’ll be there Thursday afternoon waiting patiently.

— Auerbach hopes nobody actually throws a kitchen sink at her. She can be reached at naauer@umich.edu


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