John Beilein doesn’t see everything that the casual onlooker does. Or, at least, the coach sees it differently.
When pressed on redshirt sophomore wing Charles Matthews’ turnovers and shooting slump, Beilein shrugged it off.
“I don’t look at him like you see him struggle,” he remarked. “… Charles, in his first year, just got his 80th assist. He turns it over a little bit. At the same time, if you’re not trying new things, you’re not gonna turn it over.”
For sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson, Beilein had nothing but praise for his improved decision-making this season. Simpson’s “Kareem Jabbar hook” at Penn State, as Beilein called it, wasn’t a circus shot, but something that the two work on together in practice.
And as the 17th-ranked Wolverines head into their final regular season matchup at Maryland (8-9 Big Ten, 19-11 overall) on Saturday, Beilein didn’t care much about the implications of the matchup. Michigan (12-5, 23-7) is still competing for fourth place in the Big Ten standings with Nebraska — a win and a Cornhuskers loss would give it a double bye in the Big Ten Tournament.
“You could play yourself into the worst matchup you could possibly play,” Beilein said of getting a higher seed. “There’s some teams that aren’t great matchups for us. You could play yourself right into that bad matchup even though you finished better.”
It’s only February, but the Wolverines’ patented March magic has shown itself as it enters College Park against a team only playing for revenge. It’s the time where Beilein’s focus is just as much on tempering expectations as it is basketball technique. Thus, the “one-game-at-a-time” mentality he preaches persists.
In the two teams’ previous meeting on Jan. 15 in Ann Arbor, Michigan skirted defeat thanks to last-second free throws by senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. The Terrapins nearly escaped with a victory after a Kevin Huerter 3-pointer gave them the lead with 3.3 seconds to go, but the Wolverines’ perfectly-executed final play with Abdur-Rahkman sunk those hopes.
While Maryland has hardly turned a corner and is far on the outside looking in at the NCAA Tournament, it boasts a 15-2 home record. Huerter and Cowan, who lit up the Wolverines for 36 points in their earlier matchup, have remained the usual suspects of the Terrapins’ offense.
The ingredients are there for Maryland to upset Michigan, but the problems that existed for the Wolverines earlier are long-gone or forgotten, and it is the issue of not looking too far ahead that lingers. After all, a win at Maryland — despite the personal accomplishment it may bring — would be a drop in the bucket compared to victories in the upcoming NCAA and conference tournaments. Playing the Terrapins will be more of an exercise in muscle memory than trying new things, and paying attention to anything else would be a distraction, regardless of Michigan’s current emergence.
“Don’t believe the bling bling,” said junior forward Moritz Wagner, reflecting on his experiences at this point in the season. “The whole lights, the excitement, the media — all that stuff — if you’re young or not experienced, I fell for that. It’s like you’re not focusing on the important things. You’re kinda focused on the Instagram followers more than how to guard the next opponent.”
In his third year now, Wagner has learned the significance of not getting too eager. And with so many new players, he has tried to impart this wisdom unto them before Saturday’s contest. Beilein has taken notice of this shared sentiment — a sign of relief for their final audition before the bigger games.
“I’m pretty certain we’re gonna be focused and ready to go.”