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After first loss of the year, Wolverines to be challenged in Minnesota

Alden Reiss/Daily
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By Everett Cook, Daily Sports Editor
Published January 16, 2013

Last Sunday was a good test for the Michigan basketball team, but in the end, it didn’t reveal much.

It’s hard to gauge how a young team that gets significant minutes from five true freshmen will respond to the first real road challenge of the season, especially when that challenge is against Ohio State with the country’s No. 1 ranking on the line.

The Wolverines looked awful in the first half, and needed a 21-point comeback to tie up the game late in the second half. In the end, though, five of the eight leaders in minutes played suffered the first loss of their college careers for No. 5 Michigan.

The challenge only gets tougher on Thursday night when the Wolverines (2-1 Big Ten, 16-1 overall) will take on Minnesota (3-1, 15-2), who freshman point guard Spike Albrecht calls, “freakishly athletic.” This game, not the one last Sunday, is the game that will end up defining the early stretch of Michigan’s season.

Why? For a team as young as the Wolverines, the response to the first loss of the year is more important than the actual loss.

This would be true against any Big Ten team, but it’s especially true for a road game against the veteran, ninth-ranked Golden Gophers.

On paper, the biggest challenge for Michigan would be another tough, loud atmosphere on the road. That environment will be a factor, but it’s not necessarily the thing Michigan coach John Beilein is most concerned with.

“It’s not as much about the loud,” he said. “It’s about the quickness and the intensity and the speed that some of the teams in the Big Ten have. Minnesota is no different.”

The Gophers present several matchup problems that make Beilein more concerned with the talent on the floor rather than the noise from the stands.

The first is fifth-year senior Trevor Mbakwe, Minnesota’s star forward who was forced to sit out most of last season with a knee injury. He averaged a double-double in his junior year while leading the conference in rebounding. This season, he’s less than two rebounds and one point per game from getting back to that point.

“Mbakwe causes problems just because he’s a tremendous rebounder, shot blocker, dunker — the whole deal,” Beilein said. “He doesn’t need much space, he operates really well in small spaces.”

Against Ohio State, one of the biggest positional battles was between Buckeye forward Deshaun Thomas and Wolverine forward Glenn Robinson III. Thursday, it doesn’t look like Robinson will get much of a break.

The freshman will likely be tasked with guarding Gopher senior Rodney Williams, whose 12.5 points per game is good for second-best for Minnesota.

Like Thomas, Williams is 6-foot-7, and like Thomas, he possesses the athleticism to crash the boards like a center while being able to play offensively from the wing and the post.

“Williams plays way above the rim,” Beilein said. “He’s probably the most athletic player in the Big Ten.”

The week of practice following a loss is important, particularly the first loss of the season for a team to have a short memory. It’s impossible to duplicate a tough road atmosphere, but Beilein was still encouraged by how his team responded to the loss.

“There’s a hit-home type of attitude,” Beilein said. “I love the way we responded yesterday in practice, there was no finger pointing.”

Added sophomore point guard Trey Burke: “I think the level of intensity is higher (in practice) when we lose. A loss humbles teams and allows them to make adjustments and get better. Our practice yesterday was similar to that.”

On Wednesday, a question was floated to Beilein about whether the game against Minnesota was considered a “must-win.” All the veteran coach could do was smile.

“I’d be dead if I looked at games like that,” Beilein said. “The journey and the process is what leads you to the end, so there is never a must win.”

Maybe not a must win, but a game that will prove a lot about Michigan nonetheless.