On Thursday night in Champaign, Michigan will play in the most important game of Illinois’ season.
The Illini, for all intents and purposes, are already out of contention for the NCAA Tournament with a 4-11 record. Already, they’re more or less out of Big Ten contention as well, having dropped their first four games of league play. Currently, Illinois is ranked 106th in the country, per KenPom, and the schedule isn’t about to get easier.
But there’s still this: a chance to knock off the No. 2 team in the country and give the Wolverines their first loss. As Michigan approaches a program-record win streak to start the season, a target has, inevitably, taken shape on its back.
Six years ago, the Wolverines found themselves in the same spot — at 15-0 with Big Ten play ramping up. They loved every minute of it.
“It’s way more fun (to be the villain),” Spike Albrecht, a freshman guard in 2013, said in a phone interview. “Because you know you’re the one everyone’s going after. You’re getting everyone’s best shot. And just a normal day when you go into someone's home arena, it might not be really bumping or super-packed. But you know when you're coming in, it’s going to be sold out.”
Michigan knew then and it knows now that it won’t finish undefeated. When sophomore Jordan Poole was asked about the possibility after Sunday’s win over Indiana, he demurred, saying the goal was an undefeated record at home. When coach John Beilein was asked about it Wednesday, he turned to the spokesperson beside him.
“There’s only one team that’s been undefeated in a long, long time and that’s almost 50 years, I think. Right?”
The coach was told: 1976.
“So do the math. … 43 years, we just found out. May not happen again.”
That realism, of course, won’t make the Wolverines a smaller target. It also won’t lessen the sting of an eventual loss.
When that day came in 2013, it was Ohio State that delivered the blow — jumping out to a double-digit lead early and hanging on when Trey Burke’s attempt at a buzzer-beater rimmed out. It was a splash of reality for a team with an unlimited ceiling.
“They were up like 30-6,” Albrecht said, “and I was like, ‘Well shit, I guess we’re not as good as we thought.’ ”
With that realization though, came a quiet sigh of relief.
“It’s like, ‘OK, it’s a great time to grow now. A great time to learn.’ You don't always learn as much from winning,” Beilein told The Daily. “You learn more from losing. So when you have a loss, you embrace it and say, ‘OK, now we got a chance to be good.’ ”
Added Albrecht: “It’s kind of — I don’t want to say it’s necessarily like, ‘OK, glad we got that first loss out of the way.’ Because you never want to lose. But it was kind of a reality check. and I think the coaches almost enjoyed it. Because they could come back and be like, ‘Alright, now we can get these guys off their high horse.’
“Because I’m sure if you’re a college kid, you’re 18 to 22 years old, you’re on top of the world right now. You think you’re hot shit. A first loss can be a little bit of a humbling experience but sometimes needed.”
This team isn’t the 2013 team, of course. Every player from then is long gone with the program’s identity having shifted from one that can go tit-for-tat scoring the ball to a top-ranked defense guided by the hand of assistant coach Luke Yaklich and the voice of junior guard Zavier Simpson.
These players haven’t been here in the literal sense — at this time a year ago, making the NCAA Tournament still hung in the balance of every game. But they’ve played in games of far greater magnitude than a Thursday in Champaign.
Final Fours and Big Ten Tournament championships — that’s the experience this team brings. Save for freshman Ignas Brazdeikis, every rotation player has been on a big stage with the world watching. More than cold, hard logic, that’s what will inform Michigan’s response to an inevitable loss — just as it has informed its response to every win.
“I think they’ve seen the example that Muhammad(-Ali Abdur-Rahkman), Duncan (Robinson) and Moe (Wagner) and Jaaron (Simmons) set with that,” Beilein said. “They’ve seen, ‘We won a big game. So what? We got bigger goals.’ And I think we all see that. Cause we had a lot of big wins and it just didn’t change practice at all. Same guys the next day.
“So that’s, I think, what’s resonating with (Jon) Teske. (Charles) Matthews already knew it, Zavier already knew it. (Isaiah) Livers has seen it now. (Jordan Poole) has seen it now. Austin Davis. The extent of who's back — the whole idea is now, Iggy and the other guys to say, ‘Yeah, this is the real deal. Every day, we get a win. That’s all it is is a win.’ Doesn’t mean anything until we play the next game and then we got to go do it again, do it again, do it again.”
When each game you play is the other team’s most important, that’s the only choice in front of you.