Loss propels Michigan into Tournament

Teresa Mathew/Daily
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By Simon Kaufman, Daily Sports Writer
Published March 16, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS — Nov. 17, the Michigan men’s basketball team walked off the court in Ames, Iowa while Iowa State fans rushed onto it. The Cyclones had just upset the then-seventh-ranked Wolverines and launched them into their toughest stretch of the season.

In the following 28 days, Michigan lost three more times — against Charlotte in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, on the road at Duke and at home to then-No. 1 Arizona. The Wolverines fell from the rankings and from the forefront of people’s attention.

Instead, in-state rival Michigan State dominated headlines. During Michigan’s four losses in that span, the Spartans jumped to No. 1 in the polls and stayed there for three weeks. They were the team people predicted to celebrate a conference title come March.

The Wolverines didn’t like that narrative. So they stopped losing. After dropping a two-point contest to the Wildcats in mid-December, they went on to win 10 straight games, including a defining victory in Madison against then-No. 3 Wisconsin team.

Sunday, like the Sunday afternoon in Ames, Michigan again watched as its opponent celebrated on the court. This time, it was the Spartans following their Big Ten Tournament championship win.

After advancing to the final for the first time since 1998 — though that year is not officially recognized due to NCAA sanctions — the Wolverines had an opportunity to win the tournament after already claiming the outright conference title. But a strong Michigan State team stymied them and rolled to a 69-55 win.

The Spartans walked away with the hardware, but that was supposed to happen. It wasn’t supposed to be in a competitive contest against the Wolverines. That wasn’t the preseason script, and it certainly wasn’t in the cards after sophomore Mitch McGary underwent back surgery, sidelining him for the majority of the season.

But there they were, playing on the last possible day of the season in front of a sold-out Bankers Life Fieldhouse crowd.

Even after the loss, the team could’ve taken comfort in the fact that it already had taken the regular-season conference title. But Michigan doesn’t look back, and it didn’t have time to harp on Sunday’s loss anyway. Just an hour after the final buzzer, the NCAA Tournament bracket was announced and the Wolverines had a new focus.

They were selected as a No. 2 seed and will play Wofford on Thursday, and that’s what they’re thinking about.

Even when they’ve had a longer turnaround, it has been the same story. Following any game, regardless the outcome, Michigan coach John Beilein stresses that the team’s focus is on its upcoming opponent, not the one it just played. Sure, they’ll go back to the game, watch film from it, but they won’t worry about it — they worry about who’s next.

That’s part of the reason Michigan hasn’t lost back-to-back games since February of last year. The Wolverines don’t get hung up on their defeats they prepare for their next victory.

No one expects them to lose to No. 15-seeded Wofford, but the loss Sunday could serve to help Michigan as it preps for the tournament.

“It might be good for us in the end,” said sophomore guard Spike Albrecht. “I feel like we always get better after a loss, so I hope that’s the case with this one. … Obviously, the NCAA Tournament is no joke, but we have high expectations for this team going into the tournament.”

This team is not Big Ten champion anymore, they’re just another team — one of 68 — that gets to play on, and despite being slated in a challenging region that includes the Shockers, Duke and Louisville, it’s not getting ahead of itself.

“It’s fun to look ahead and see the possible options,” said sophomore guard Nik Stauskas. “But with the tournament, you never know. You can’t assume anything. We’re just really focused on this first game.”

That’s what Michigan did all season, and it’s a motto that landed it a No. 2 seed in the tournament. And the Wolverines have no intention on changing its one-game-focused mentality now.