NEW YORK — The telling game, the game that brings everybody back down to Earth and balances expectations, hasn’t happened yet.
The game that was supposed to intimidate this young and inexperienced team and make them remember that college basketball is supposed to be a difficult transition hasn’t happened yet.
There have been good games against decent teams, but the game that tests this No. 2 Michigan team hasn’t happened yet, and probably won’t happen until January or February.
These games were supposed to happen already. Maybe the Wolverines could have been challenged in the NIT Season Tip-Off, but they won that tournament and won it with conviction, so never mind. Maybe they would be intimidated by their first ranked opponent, then-No. 18 North Carolina State, but they won by seven points and led comfortably for much of that contest — the final score made the game seem closer than it actually was.
Or maybe that game, the moment when Michigan loses its thunder and becomes a beatable basketball team, was supposed to come here, in Brooklyn, in basketball’s newest arena against West Virginia.
The Barclays Center is the fresh new home of the National Basketball Association’s Brooklyn Nets, who moved from New Jersey at the end of last season to inhabit this spectacle of an arena. It’s not a traditional basketball space — the Nets play here, yes, but there are coffee shops and clothing stores and bars inside the building, as well as a subway station right outside that is marked by an odd man-made hill full of grass. There are eleven trains that are directed to Barclays — not all of them are full of basketball fans.
So maybe here, in the house that Jay-Z built, Michigan (11-0) would find its first struggle, intimidated by the stage, or if nothing else, the national audience on ESPN.
But then, less than two and a half minutes into the game, the Wolverines led 13-2. They had scored 11 points in two minutes, including three 3-pointers.
West Virginia (4-5) called a timeout, sophomore point guard Trey Burke banged on his chest and bounced off his teammates, and Michigan never slowed down in an 81-66 victory.
The Wolverines didn’t look the least bit intimated — they looked like a team that belonged on that court in Brooklyn, from the first tip to the final whistle.
Five minutes into the game, freshman guard Nik Stauskas rose up for a monster dunk. He missed, but the ball made its way back around to freshman forward Glenn Robinson, who tried a big dunk of his own. He missed, but was fouled, and made both his free throws.
By that point, every Michigan starter had scored. West Virginia went on a run at the end of the first half and another near the end of the second, but the game wasn’t ever that close.
That’s been the story through two months and 11 games. There hasn’t been that defining game, the game that actually tests this team.
Before the season, the non-conference schedule looked fine, not the most challenging in the Big Ten but also not the least. Now, in hindsight, that schedule looks a lot weaker. Michigan has played only one ranked team, N.C. State, who isn’t even in the top-20 anymore.
And the Bob Huggins-led West Virginia team that looked to be a decent Big-12 opponent before the season started turned out to be a .500 squad with losses to opponents like Duquesne and Davidson.
On Saturday, the stage was big, but the opponent wasn’t — Huggins tore into his squad after the game, saying, “I want some guys that care.”
This isn’t the Wolverines’ fault — it’s just the way the schedule worked out.
But it will be interesting to see how this team responds to the weekly rigors of the Big Ten, arguably the best basketball conference in the country right now. There will be stretches like the first two weeks of February, when Michigan will play four total games, including three road contests against Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan State, in 11 days.
There hasn’t been a stretch like that yet for Michigan, and that’s when we will find out what this team is really made of. Not here, in the Barclays Center, and not now, against a mediocre West Virginia team.