- Paul Sherman/Daily
By Daniel Feldman, Daily Sports Writer
Published December 22, 2013
NEW YORK — Michigan couldn’t afford another loss Saturday and Michigan coach John Beilein knew it.
After suffering four losses in the tougher non-conference portion of the schedule this year, a fifth one could mean trouble for the Michigan men’s basketball team’s NCAA Tournament aspirations.
A year had passed since the team’s last appearance at the Barclays Center. And much has changed for the Wolverines. Last year, this game represented a chance for Michigan’s New York City alumni to see a team show off its clear top-level talent.
This year, the game didn’t mean that. This game was a must-win for the Wolverines. Lacking a real signature win, Saturday marked an opportunity to show to their New York audience that there is fight, there is promise and there is hope for this team.
Thus, Saturday’s encounter with Stanford presented a far different circumstance in Brooklyn this year than last December, when Michigan entered the Barclays Center with a 10-0 record against an easier schedule and a No. 3 national ranking as it took on Beilein’s former school, West Virginia.
Michigan came out firing early in that game, jumping out to a 13-2 lead after the first 2:50 of the game. This year, with a bevvy of maize-clad supporters in the stands, Michigan didn’t score until 4:15 into the first half.
Without current NBA players Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. in uniform, Michigan looked slow on offense. While Hardaway was in attendance as a spectator, it was clear that the offensive firepower that was Michigan’s backcourt last season has been missed.
Since officially losing the duo at the NBA Draft at the Barclays Center in June, the difference in the two squads’ non-conference start was evident for the predominately pro-Michigan crowd.
Having lost those tough non-conference games by ways of a buzzer beater, simply being outplayed and by means of a late-game collapse due to a scoring drought and rebounding inertia, Michigan couldn’t stand to lose another.
Turning around this pattern against quality opposition wasn’t going to come easy, especially against Stanford (8-3), which had beaten No. 10 Connecticut on the road earlier in the week.
To make matters worse for the Wolverines, they played without their preseason All-American forward Mitch McGary, whose mix of injuries forced him to sit out. Without the sophomore, Michigan lacked its mobile and agile forward that would have helped it break down Stanford’s zone defense by getting the ball out in transition.
With another obstacle in its way, Michigan and Beilein desperately needed to avoid what they never felt last year in regular-season non-conference play: a loss.
There’s only a limited amount of room for improvement that comes through a loss.
“You like to do it with a win and fortunately we had both (Saturday),” Beilein said.
While it was tough, nerve-wracking and down to the wire, Michigan did just that — avoided the loss.
Of course, there were several points in the game that it felt like the Wolverines would taste defeat once again.
For one, McGary’s backups, redshirt junior Jon Horford, fifth-year senior Jordan Morgan and redshirt sophomore Max Biefeldt, totaled 14 total fouls, with the first two fouling in the final three minutes of regulation.
But Michigan persevered. It led for 86 percent of the game, but as in its last game against Arizona, the game was on the line in the final minutes of action.
Unlike its matchup against top-ranked Arizona, Michigan didn’t relent, it didn’t let the lead slip, it didn’t falter so much that it lost. Sophomore guard Nik Stauskas’ nine-for-nine free throw shooting and sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III’s aggressive play and 17 points saved the day for the Wolverines.
“I think this year, we just needed a quality win,” Stauskas said.
Beilein has learned a lot about his team so far this season. He expects continued improvement as the season unfolds. He knows this win was needed.
Michigan might not achieve the success last year’s team accomplished, but if this team was going to have any shot at repeating, it needed to avoid a loss.
Because good teams find a way to do that.