Aria Gerson: The death of a winning streak

Monday, January 21, 2019 - 7:24pm

Michigan coach John Beilein's goal wasn't to be undefeated this season.

Michigan coach John Beilein's goal wasn't to be undefeated this season. Buy this photo
Annie Klus/Daily

After a mostly meaningless December win against Binghamton — a game in which Michigan didn’t play particularly well, but still blew by the Bearcats — you couldn’t be faulted for looking forward.

Big Ten play was about to resume. The Wolverines were undefeated with a program-record start within reach. The questions were inevitable.

Do you think about being undefeated?

Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein shot down any such idea instantly.

“We talked about, the goals this year weren’t to be undefeated,” Beilein said. “The goal was to win all our home games, so we did that. Compete for a Big Ten championship, that’s still in front of us. … So just take it a little bit by little as we go forward, but we don’t talk about going undefeated and there hasn’t been a team go undefeated since ’76, is that right? So we don’t talk about it.”

The thing about a winning streak, though, is that it’s impossible to avoid talking about it, especially when it meets its demise. On Saturday, the fifth-ranked Wolverines fell to Wisconsin, and the questions switched from handling the pressure of a streak to how they would move on.

There was another significant thing Beilein said at that press conference after Binghamton. The question was again about being undefeated. But the answer was about learning.

“It’s really hard to keep that going,” Beilein said. “We’d probably prefer it the other way. … That certainly was sometimes where they needed to get their memory jogged about how we got to that point was incredible defense, incredible attention to detail, et cetera.”

Beilein said he’d prefer an early-season loss or two because it’s harder to remind the team of that when it hasn’t faced adversity. In that sense, Saturday — where the defense failed to contain the Badgers’ Ethan Happ and Michigan gave away 16 turnovers — was one hell of a memory jog. Going forward, that could help the Wolverines.

Friday afternoon, freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis was brash and assured, letting the world know that he wasn’t scared of any team. The next day, he scored zero points and was instructed to intentionally foul Happ off the ball, leading to a flagrant foul that completed Michigan’s unraveling.

Brazdeikis hadn’t had a day like that before. He’d scored double-digit points in all but two games and never put up a goose egg. He’d never experienced the eerie silence of a post-loss locker room, a stark contrast to the loud, confident atmosphere after a win.

For everyone else, too, it had been a while since they’d made mistakes like that, been outplayed like that or lost like that. Other than a 62-60 scare in Evanston in early December, there hadn’t been any semblance of trouble all season. Now that they’ve hit some struggles, the Wolverines are better equipped to correct them.

“We don’t usually make those mistakes,” said junior center Jon Teske after the game. “But for some reason we did, and we’ll learn from this and we’ll grow from this.”

That, above all, is what Beilein was talking about after the blowout against the Bearcats. There’s a reason the last team to go undefeated was over 40 years ago. Every team, no matter how good, is going to have one of those games. All of Beilein’s goals are still attainable. Michigan is still perfect at home. The Big Ten title is still within reach.

Last weekend, the Wolverines were simultaneously reminded about what made them great before and what mistakes to correct in the future. The schedule will only get tougher as the season goes on, with road contests against Indiana and Iowa and home games against Minnesota and Ohio State in the next two weeks. So as tough as it is to see any streak end, perhaps the loss came at just the right time.

“You’re a victim of your own success in the sense that any losses will magnify, and that’s really not the truth,” Beilein said. “The truth is the schedule is much different in the first 18 than it is in the last 13. … So, it’s when you try to explain that to your team, without taking away confidence and without scaring them for the future. You try to make sure they know who our team really is, what we’re capable of, things like that. A loss is a loss, learn from it and move on.”

Inevitably, the questions about the streak will die down now that it’s over. No longer will every win be potential history, and no longer will any loss be the end of something. Instead, Michigan can focus on the strengths that led to the streak in the first place and the weaknesses that ended it. It is only with both of those together that the Wolverines can become the best version of themselves.

And that’s just the way Beilein wants it.

Gerson can be reached at amgerson@umich.edu and on Twitter @aria_gerson.