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Neal Rothschild: Lackluster non-conference nearly salvaged

Todd Needle/Daily
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By Neal Rothschild, Daily Sports Editor
Published December 14, 2013

The Michigan men’s basketball team has lost four times this year, and after each one, it’s expressed disappointment but not devastation. Rue, but not ruin. Can’t win them all, especially against such tough teams.

For the non-conference stretch of their schedule, the Wolverines have had just one thing to hang their hat on — the quality of their opponents. There were top-16 teams in Iowa State and Duke, both in smoldering, crucible environments on the road. A neutral-site setback against Charlotte could be explained by injuries to sophomore guard Nik Stauskas and sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III.

Losses could be excused because the road tests were so tough or the opponents so talented. The Wolverines’ season was being defined by their opponents and not themselves. Each of those defeats was an adulation of the opponent, not an indictment of Michigan.

But heading into Saturday, there was a chance for salvation. One win would redeem a shoddy early season. That’s all it would take to salvage the disappointing non-conference campaign.

A successful 40 minutes, and Michigan would’ve knocked off Arizona, the top-ranked team in the country. After other teams had had their day against the Wolverines in November and December, the Wolverines would have had their own.

For 32 minutes, it seemed that would be the case. Robinson was breaking out, enjoying his best half in a Michigan uniform. He didn’t miss a shot in the first 20 minutes, scoring 16 points as Michigan took a nine-point lead into the half.

The lead inflated and deflated in the second half, but by time there were eight minutes left, the Wolverines stood strong with an eight-point lead.

Up 58-50 with the ball, Michigan let the lead slip away. Sophomore guard Caris LeVert missed an open 3-pointer from the top of the key, and the Wildcats took control from there.

Behind freshman sensation Aaron Gordon, forward Brandon Ashley and six clutch Nick Johnson free throws, Arizona outscored Michigan 22-12 in the last six and a half minutes.

That was it, and Michigan again fell short against an elite team. Again, the post-game discussion centered on Arizona’s talent. The Wolverines were upset but were equally unfazed given the competitive showing against the nation’s top team.

“It would have been big for us to win this game for sure,” Stauskas said. “We were all really looking forward to this one. This one was kind of circled on our calendars. Down the stretch, we just couldn’t pull out enough big plays.”

Michigan, and frankly, everyone knows it is better than its record. It’s undeniably true, and that’s somewhat comforting for fans. It’s a sign that what has happened so far this season is a matter of circumstance and not representative of their ability. There’s not a better four-loss team in the NCAA, and, for that matter, there may not be a better three-loss team either. There may be just two or three two-loss teams better than Michigan.

Again, the narrative of the non-conference season rehashed itself.

For another day, it was a loss, but not a crippling one. Again, praise of an esteemed opponent and again, not a criticism of the Wolverines.

It’s another defeat that can be justified, excused. For a team that’s been unable to meet any of its early-season aspirations, it’s been able to avoid the tough questions because of the merit of its schedule. But the questions won’t be going away, and eventually they’ll have to be answered.

“Going forward, we’re going to have to get even tougher,” said redshirt junior center Jon Horford. “We’re going to have to put more emphasis on practice, we’re going to have to make practices more competitive, we’re going to have to put more of an emphasis on those stops and not getting content or complacent with having an eight-point lead with eight minutes left.”

That’s it for this season, no more of those games. There are two more non-conference challenges, but gone are the games that can be explained away or shrugged off.

Rothschild can be reached at nealroth@umich.edu or on Twitter @nrothschild3


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