Chris Collins stepped up to the podium last Sunday, faced with the unenviable task of putting into words a summation of his team’s 80-60 loss to No. 2 Michigan.
“Seventeen teams have tried,” the Northwestern men’s basketball coach said. “And 17 have failed.”
That’s 17 postgame press conferences for the opposing coach, trying to grapple with what had just happened and finding some positive takeaway to tell reporters.
“You’re down 22 at half,” Collins said. “I was proud of our guys to not roll over. We came out in the second half, we fought, made a couple runs, think we got it to 14 or so. … Hopefully, that can be something good. Our young guys got a lot of experience.”
Michigan coach John Beilein, of course, downplayed the accomplishment. Beilein isn’t one to dwell on achievements — even when those achievements include a 17-game undefeated start, the best in program history.
Instead, he complimented the Wildcats. The game, he said, was closer than the score indicated and the Wolverines remained focused on the day-to-day. His words sounded far from those of a coach whose team had just achieved history.
“Everybody would like to have me make some great statement about being 17-0,” Beilein said. “It’s just another game.”
But maybe, Beilein didn’t need to make some sort of sweeping statement about his team’s performance. Collins’ words — that he was proud of his team for cutting the lead to just 14, that the young kids getting playing time was a big positive — already spoke volumes.
Sure, Collins’ Northwestern team isn’t very good. But he’s not the only one that has given similar soundbites.
Last week, coach Archie Miller took his No. 21 Indiana squad, featuring five-star freshman guard Romeo Langford and preseason All-Big Ten forward Juwan Morgan, to Ann Arbor. The Hoosiers lost by 11 instead of 20, but the overall outcome was no different — just another team that had tried and failed to solve Michigan.
The first words of Miller’s postgame presser? “Michigan did a great job.”
He concluded his opening statement by saying, “They’re really good and I give them credit.”
There it was again — that the Wolverines were simply really talented and hard to beat. Sure, he nitpicked his team’s flaws like all coaches do, but it was all couched in the context of how a squad that good will put every weakness on display.
Back in December, it was Purdue coach Matt Painter who found himself in a similar situation. The Boilermakers, then ranked 19th in the country, had lost by 19 points. He echoed the same refrains.
“You gotta give them credit,” Painter said. “They’re a good team.”
Then, he rattled off his team’s mistakes. Bad defense. A slow start. The list went on.
“When you’re not disciplined, they’re gonna get you,” Painter said. “They’re gonna get you anyways.”
Michigan is that team now. The one you can’t expect to give you anything. The one that provides opposing players a good “learning experience.” The one that leaves coaches at a loss for words to the point where the only thing left to do is tip their hats to the Wolverines for being the better team.
When you’re 17-0, reporters inevitably ask how it feels. Beilein doesn’t bite, because that isn’t who he is. Instead, he undersells the team’s success — pointing out the day’s impressive performances, talking about things to improve, then moving on.
Meanwhile, for the opposing coaches, the press conferences are an exercise in futility, a laundry list of what went wrong. Then, inevitably, an acknowledgment.
Give the Wolverines credit. It’s hard to beat a team like that.
Unlike Beilein, these coaches don’t need to stretch to justify their compliments. In fact, they don’t really need to justify them at all. The way Michigan has been playing speaks for itself.
And that makes a statement louder than any Beilein himself could.
Gerson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @aria_gerson.