Max Marcovitch: A wake-up call in the heart of college basketball
CHAPEL HILL, NC — In Chapel Hill, basketball isn’t so much sport as it is religion.
The hardwood floors carry a little more weight. The rafters preach hymns more than they list numbers. The sea of Carolina blue overwhelms. There’s more history in the building than in some museums.
Last Sunday’s loss to Michigan State and an embarrassing 45 point total isn’t so much disappointment as it is sacrilege.
“It wasn’t very pleasant,” said North Carolina coach Roy Williams, in the aftermath of his team’s performance against the Spartans. “We got back at 6:30 Monday, I laid down at 7:15 a.m. and got up at 9 o’clock because it wasn’t doing any good. Then I got a haircut to see if that would help me. I was willing to try anything.”
A bounceback, conversely, isn’t so much desired as it is required.
The Wolverines took their lumps in Wednesday night’s 86-71 defeat, a game that wasn’t nearly as close the score indicates. They proved incapable of competing with a team fueled by vengeance and its own home crowd. Like an elite program does, the Tar Heels responded.
In what is becoming an annual occurrence, the Wolverines got beat down by a superior team. But here’s the thing: That’s OK.
In the Big Ten/ACC Challenge a year ago, Michigan lost at home to Virginia Tech only one week after losing by 15 to South Carolina. Ten days later, it fell to Lonzo Ball and UCLA by 18.
Few even batted an eyelash — and for good reason. You play these games to win, sure. But above all, you play these games to dig deep and learn something about your team. Which is why, when Michigan coach John Beilein said he just hoped Michigan “would hang around” against North Carolina, he truly meant it. With much of his team in flux, he likely didn’t expect it to go into Chapel Hill and beat a top-15 team on the road.
They didn’t “hang around,” of course. Michigan got run out of the gym by a team that was not only better but hungrier.
Early on, Michigan held its own. With the Tar Heels grasping a slim 34-32 lead, fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson grabbed an outlet pass and attacked the fast break. He elevated and laid the ball up, and when the easy layup fell off the front of the rim, the Michigan offense fell off a cliff. For the next 30 minutes, North Carolina’s pace and relentlessness overwhelmed a lackadaisical Michigan team. North Carolina went on a 36-9 run to open up a 29-point lead, and leave no doubt about the result.
“I don’t think we were ready for the quickness, speed and the precision they run with, and we weren’t locked in defensively, we just weren’t locked in,” Beilein said. “We laid an egg for most of the first half defensively, half the first half offensively, and I gotta find out really the reasons behind that.”
Certainly, there are real reasons for concern.
The Tar Heels played with energy, the Wolverines looked sloppy. The Tar Heels executed with precision, the Wolverines were stagnant. The Tar Heels fed off the crowd, the Wolverines looked like they wanted to be anywhere else.
Michigan lacked a competitive “grit,” as Beilein described. That’s what disappointed him most.
“They came out with a real vengeance towards us or towards the Big Ten,” Beilein said. “We did not answer, we couldn’t answer.”
While the Tar Heels — the defending national champions — are not afforded the same patience the Wolverines are fortunate to have. In Ann Arbor, the expectations are high, but basketball isn’t a religion.
Each of the past five seasons, Michigan has lost at least twice before conference play, but it has still made the NCAA Tournament in four of those five seasons, and the Sweet Sixteen in three of those five. This early-season play is always exploratory, and with two transfers and three freshmen playing prominent roles, this season was never going to be an exception.
Beilein played 11 players in the first 15 minutes of the game, and hopes to eventually cut down to eight or nine. All three point guards — freshman Eli Brooks, sophomore Zavier Simpson and fifth-year senior Jaaron Simmons — played at least nine minutes. Beilein hopes a clear leader emerges, and that he can reduce that rotation from three to two. And he’s still waiting for a player to step up and get a bucket when the offense bogs down. For Derrick Walton Jr. last season, it didn’t happen until February, aligning closely with when the team took off.
None of these changes, though, will happen until Beilein is good and ready.
“I don’t know who those next guys are. If you know, you guys can let me know. … Just watch this team grow, you’ll like what they do.”
For some fans, his patience is frustrating when it comes at the expense of blowout losses and underachievement. Yet given his track record, Beilein has earned the benefit of the doubt.
That’s the big picture. Here’s the immediate reality.
This was their first major test, and there’s no escaping the fact that they failed it.
For better or worse, the Wolverines have no time to sulk. They return home to play a feisty Indiana team Saturday, hit the road again to play Ohio State on Monday, then return back home for UCLA the following Saturday — all before capping the gauntlet in Austin the next Tuesday against Texas. This slate of games is the most grueling part of the schedule that Beilein has regularly referred to as "the most challenging schedule that certainly I've ever had at Michigan, or maybe Michigan's ever had."
Like North Carolina a few days ago, Michigan got a wake-up call of its own Wednesday night. Now it’s time for a response.
Marcovitch can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Max_Marcovitch