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Michigan looks to maintain edge in NCAA opener vs. Wofford

Patrick Barron/Daily
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By Neal Rothschild, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 19, 2014

The last three times the Michigan men’s basketball team played in a tournament, it reached the championship game — never mind the result in those games.

A fourth straight would be quite an accomplishment, and that’s what the Wolverines are setting out to do when they begin the NCAA Tournament on Thursday against Wofford as the No. 2 seed in the Midwest region.

It’s the highest seed Michigan has attained in the John Beilein era, and while the 15-seed upset is certainly not unprecedented, the Wolverines will have more margin for error than in opening games in prior years.

That, however, certainly won’t be an invitation for the team to look ahead to its Saturday game.

“I thought this team did a great job of not thinking ahead all year and taking it game by game and preparing the best we can for Wofford,” sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III told reporters Wednesday.

For a team that plays its best when it has a source of motivation — a chip on its shoulder — the matchup against the Terriers seems to fall short of providing that.

Beilein is doing what he can to talk up Wofford and instill a sense of urgency. The team seemed to lack that punch in the quarterfinal of the Big Ten Tournament when Illinois nearly sprung an upset with the Wolverines looking lethargic for stretches of play.

“It might not be a team that jumps off the paper,” said fifth-year senior center Jordan Morgan. “But somebody that you have to respect and take very seriously.”

Added Beilein: “It probably bothers me a little bit (that many Michigan players hadn’t heard of Wofford) because I know how good those teams are, and as I watch NIT scores yesterday … as a guy who came from that territory, I remind them all the time how everyone this time of the year is really good. You got to come ready to play.”

While the impetus is there to shrug off the Wofford matchup, working in the Wolverines’ favor is that they lost their previous game, the Big Ten Tournament Final against Michigan State. Michigan has been impressive over the last few years at coming back from losses. It hasn’t lost consecutive games this year and has won games following a loss by an average of 24 points.

Maybe it won’t come against Wofford, but the close games may arrive quickly for Michigan, though that may not be a bad thing. The Wolverines are 9-2 in games decided by fewer than five points. Four of those wins have come in the last month, and neither of the losses were in 2014.

“We’ve really played well in those last few minutes to seal those games up,” said sophomore guard Nik Stauskas. “So I just think those games have done a good job of preparing us for this tournament because you’re not going to blow teams out and you’re going to have a lot of games where it comes down to the last few minutes. I think we’re ready for that.”

After facing the same teams for the last 11 weeks, Michigan can finally shed its worn-thin Big Ten scouting reports.

“I think every university in the country gets excited about playing somebody else they haven’t seen twice, or three times during the year,” Beilein said Sunday.

But where Beilein would normally have up to a week to prepare for a team that he knows well in his own conference, the preparation timetable shrinks in a hurry.

The Wolverines had three days to get ready for the Terriers and will then have only one day to plan for the Saturday game, should they get by Wofford.

Less time for scouting also means less rest. If Michigan makes it to Saturday, it will be playing its fifth game in nine days — something teams rarely, if ever, have to do.

The heightened adrenaline of March Madness works to neutralize that fatigue.

“It’s a different focus now,” Morgan said. “It’s a different level of intensity when it comes to the game.”