SAN ANTONIO, Texas — John Beilein looked despondent.
The Michigan head coach was unhappy with the result, an 86-71 throat-slashing at the hands of North Carolina, and even less happy with the effort.
“(North Carolina) might be that good,” Beilein said after that Nov. 29 contest in Chapel Hill, “but we’re definitely not that bad.”
Then he added a remarkably confident quibble about his young team, one that aged quite well in hindsight.
“Just watch this team grow. You’ll like what they do.”
Fast forward five months, and the Wolverines are on the doorstep of a national title — assistant coach Saddi Washington says he can hardly remember the last time they lost. But these staggering peaks didn’t come without deep valleys.
That defeat that slipped Washington’s mind came 56 days ago, a 61-52 loss at Northwestern that saw Michigan’s offense wither at the feet of the Wildcats’ sprawling zone. Since, the Wolverines have won 15 games in a row. A 16th would bring a national title back to Ann Arbor.
And ask anyone in Michigan’s locker room: the turning points of the season didn’t come in big wins, but in those stinging lossess.
Just 24 hours from the Wolverines’ biggest basketball game in five years, and the biggest of each player’s life, the athletes and coaches were able to appreciate the depths that helped them reach these heights.
“(Northwestern) played this really crazy matchup zone,” said freshman guard C.J. Baird, on the last time his team lost. “That threw us for a loop. We were definitely wondering, ‘Where do we go from here? What’s our next step?’ ”
Since then, Michigan has faced several zone defenses, including Texas A&M’s in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, one the Wolverines torched to the tune of 99 points and 14 made threes.
Less than a month prior to the loss to the Wildcats, the Wolverines went to Lincoln and were dealt their worst loss of the season, a 72-52 shellacking at the hands of the Cornhuskers. Nebraska notoriously switched every ball screen in that game, a strategy that held Michigan center Moritz Wagner to just two points. The loss sent shockwaves through a team whose offensive flow hardly resembled Beilein’s trademark offenses.
At the time, it seemed to be a team more likely destined for the NIT than the Final Four.
“That was definitely a turning point with the coaching staff,” Baird said, “because they noticed teams would do that now and follow suit. I mean, we lost by 20.”
Instead of praying teams wouldn’t mimic Nebraska’s formula, Beilein and his staff devised a plan to beat it.
Nearly every team since then has tried to reenact the Cornhuskers’ success, and guided by increasingly aggressive guard play, the offense has made the necessary adjustment. Resoundingly.
Monday night, Michigan will invariably see it again, as Villanova thrives on defensive versatility and athleticism. It’s only right that the truest measuring stick of growth will come on the sport’s biggest stage.
“I think our losses have shown through really throughout the entirety of our season — just with handling adversity, also with handling success,” said fifth-year senior Duncan Robinson. “With us, it’s all about growing through everything, victory (and) defeat. That’s something Coach Beilein stresses with us, the good teams grow from both.”
Added Washington: “I think that speaks to the genius of Coach Beilein. Whether you win or lose a game, it’s an opportunity to grow. It’s an opportunity to learn something new about yourself.”
“Growth” for Beilein’s squad doesn’t come in heaps and mounds. He’s not big on “rah-rah” speeches or big-picture turning points. It comes in incremental, day-to-day dedication. As cliche as it may sound, there was no magic elixir that transformed an early season pretender into a national championship participant.
“It’s just one of those things Coach has been saying lately,” Washington recalled Sunday afternoon. “‘You don’t try to eat the whole elephant, you just take a bite at a time.’ ”
That elephant has been reduced to a morsel. There’s only one more bite left to take.