Being dubbed “soft” by outsiders is nothing new for the Michigan men’s basketball team. That sentiment has surrounded the program for a long time now.
But after the Wolverines suffered an 85-69 blowout loss in Champaign, Illinois center Maverick Morgan went as far as to call Michigan a “white collar” team.
The statement may sting a little more given the Wolverines’ circumstances in the Big Ten. They sit at 1-3 in the conference, and their play has left plenty to be desired.
Michigan (1-3 Big Ten, 11-6 overall) certainly knows about the outside chatter. Senior wing Zak Irvin said Friday that the team became aware of Morgan’s comments through social media, before having a collective conversation about them — the details of which would “stay in the locker room”.
Still, the Wolverines weren’t completely quiet about the matter.
“You know, we're just looking forward to Nebraska, but we will see (Illinois) again,” Irvin said. “So we'll be looking for that matchup.”
Added junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: “It doesn’t feel good. I never see myself as a white-collar player or anything like that, so I especially don’t like that. We’ll have our chance to play them again, and I don’t think it’ll be the same.”
Michigan has a chance to begin shedding its most-recent label Saturday afternoon, when the Wolverines will face Nebraska (3-1, 9-7) at Crisler Center.
Given Michigan’s rocky start to Big Ten play, the matchup feels like a must-win game. But that may not be so easy.
The Cornhuskers’ season is on a trajectory essentially opposite that of the Wolverines.
After struggling to a 6-6 record through non-conference play, Nebraska has started the Big Ten firing on all cylinders, winning three straight at Indiana, at Maryland and against Iowa.
The Cornhuskers are thriving behind senior guard Tai Webster, who is fourth in the Big Ten with 17.7 points per game.
Michigan may have caught a break, though, when it was announced Wednesday that forward Ed Morrow suffered a right foot injury and will be ruled out indefinitely. The loss of Morrow means that Nebraska will be without its leading rebounder and third-leading scorer Saturday.
The Wolverines have been struggling to defend down low and their effectiveness on the glass has been a problem. Through the last two games, Michigan has been outrebounded 63-43. Against the Terrapins, forwards Justin Jackson and Damonte Dodd notched 15 points apiece, and in the matchup against Illinois, Morgan scored a team-high 16 points.
The injury to Morrow, then, could be a key factor for the Wolverines to claim what is certainly a much-needed win.
“Just one win would make a huge difference right now,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “You’re only as good as your last game. This is the first time we’ve lost two in a row. It just doubles the agony of it. We’ve got to continue to fight through it.
“It happens to NBA teams, it happens to NFL teams, it happens to the best college teams. If the frustration is the way, if you see it and recognize it and can get better from it, then you’re going to find your answers.”
The fact is, Michigan needs those answers quickly, but that may be easier said than done. There is no break in Big Ten play on the horizon, and with each loss more of the questions that existed before the Wolverines’ strong start to the season seem to be resurfacing.
“Everybody is going to have these times,” Beilein said. “You just stay the course. You stay persistent. You try to stay as positive as you can while you’re still instructing and demanding certain values in the game.
“You just let the process work itself out. That’s what we’re doing. That’s what we’re doing every day. There’s no quick fix right now, except for persistence.”