With the initial signs of winter creeping into Ann Arbor, John Beilein and the Michigan men’s basketball team are on a beach in Maui.
Videos have circled on social media of Beilein shooting free throws with a lei wrapped around his neck, along with clips of sophomore forward Ibi Watson and freshman guard Jordan Poole offering their iteration of the luau. There was even a photo of penguins in the hotel lobby.
While the coveted Maui dateline is decidedly absent from this story, the team’s calm mood is evident, even 4,300 miles away.
That change in scenery, though — and perhaps more aptly, the change in opposition level — will offer the clearest measuring stick yet of where the Wolverines stand so far. Michigan heads to the Maui Invitational a decidedly uncertain 3-0 team. It will play three games in three days before returning home. The team will come back to Ann Arbor next week with more clarity, for better or for worse.
Sunday, Beilein took a break from the festivities to address the media in attendance and reiterate the test ahead of his team.
“Now they’re going to get these great opportunities to do it on the big stage,” Beilein said. “And there is no stage bigger, really, except maybe the NCAA Tournament and this tip off tournament. So we’ll see what they do when the lights come on, and if they can’t get it done right, we will eventually do it. But this is a great test.”
Consider it a placement test.
Part one of that exam starts Monday, when the Wolverines take on LSU, whose 2-0 record comes with an equally dubious opposition-centric caveat. In reality, little has been learned about either team through each of their tune-up contests.
The most accomplished team either has faced thus far (Central Michigan) finished 6-12 in the Mid-American Conference a year ago. And Michigan barely escaped that game, squeaking out a 72-65 win.
With questions abound in Ann Arbor, they hardly hold a candle to those in Baton Rouge. The Tigers finished 10-21 overall a season ago, with a dreadful 2-16 conference record, leading to the ousting of coach Johnny Jones.
This week will offer new coach Will Wade — formerly at VCU — a chance to prove himself.
“It will be good for us to see where we stand and give us about six weeks before we get into SEC play to see where we stand and what we need to correct and get better on, and where we need to move forward,” Wade said. “So we're anxious about the opportunity, and looking forward to getting it kicked off tomorrow.”
Meager opposition aside, LSU appears capable of scoring in droves. In its two games thus far, the Tigers scored 204 points en route to blowout wins. They have had six scorers reach double figures in scoring in a game and three different players reach 20-plus points in a game.
If Michigan can advance past LSU, the Wolverines will likely face staunch opposition in No. 13 Notre Dame, an early Final Four contender.
While most coaches use the Maui Invitational as a time to assess their teams, the tournament itself holds weight, not only as a predictive tool, but also as key results on NCAA Tournament resumes down the road.
Michigan has won the Maui Invitational twice — in 1985 and 1988. The latter of those two seasons culminated in the Wolverines’ lone national championship.
In an honest moment, Beilein might acknowledge Michigan is unsuited to win a major pre-conference tournament with the current state of the team. Through three games, Beilein has described his offense as “awful” and “anxious” at times. He has yet to name a long-term starting point guard, and neither of the three have forced his hand with their play. He still has a mangled rotation, with playing time still highly fluctuant beyond six or seven regulars.
Regardless, the time has come for Beilein to, effectively, say goodbye to the preseason, and “aloha” to quality opposition.
There are plenty of questions surrounding the shaky start.
Ready or not, here come some answers.