It doesn’t take much time with John Beilein to learn that he grew up on a farm in upstate New York. Just seconds into his press conference after Michigan’s win against Maryland last week, he began lecturing a room full of confused writers on the benefits of pruning trees, tangentially connecting hydrangeas and grapefruit trees to the recently concluded basketball game.
But as much as those reporters may have inadvertently learned about Beilein’s childhood agricultural findings, no group knows this as well as his 2013 team.
Beilein’s favorite analogy that season was also botanical. Apple trees, he would explain after every loss, need manure to grow. The losses, of course, were the manure. The Wolverines — ripe with the potential they displayed in a 16-0 start — were the stagnant apple tree, yet to discover their final form.
If that sounds familiar, it should. Six years later, this year’s Wolverines one-upped that group with a 17-0 start. What they couldn’t improve upon was the mid-season lull that followed, squandering the Big Ten regular season title like the 2013 team did, entering the postseason with more questions than answers.
And if you ask that 2013 team — which eventually turned its season around in time to reach the program’s first Final Four in two decades — how this group can replicate its March success, the answer comes back to Beilein’s lesson on apple trees.
“The most important thing is being able to learn from (losses),” Jordan Morgan, a Michigan forward from 2010-14, told The Daily. “That makes all the difference. It’s much easier to learn from a loss than it is to learn from a win. And that was one of the reasons that at the time, coach Beilein would cherish losses. Because your teams might not reach their full potential if you don’t go through those rough patches at times.”
Six years ago, the loss that Michigan learned most from — according to Morgan and teammates Josh Bartelstein and Corey Person — was its Feb. 27 defeat in State College, a place where the Wolverines lost to an equally hapless Penn State last month. The 2019 group has also emphasized the lessons learned in that loss. On the court, though, it followed up with a pair of losses to Michigan State, costing itself a Big Ten title in the process.
Despite their proclamations that Penn State was the turning point, the 2013 team knows a thing or two about that. Just 11 days after the loss in State College, it faced No. 2 Indiana with the conference championship on the line. Much like last Saturday in East Lansing, Michigan walked off the court in defeat, a title being celebrated in its wake.
And as much as the 2013 Wolverines may talk about the Penn State game, it’s the aftermath of that loss to the Hoosiers that provides Michigan with its blueprint for the next month.
“Definitely hurt a lot,” freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis said of the Michigan State loss. “I feel like our whole team felt it a little bit. But at the end of the day, that was the regular season. Now we’re on to the postseason.”
Person, reflecting on his team’s response to its regular season finale, hits a strikingly similar tone.
“Our mindset going in was we didn’t get the Big Ten regular season, we’re gonna turn around and we’re gonna go in here and we’re gonna show everybody,” he said. “And we’re gonna get this Big Ten Tournament.”
Michigan didn’t “get” the Big Ten Tournament, losing in the quarterfinals to Wisconsin. But when it steamrolled 5th-seeded VCU in the second round of the NCAA Tournament a week later, the swagger that had defined its undefeated start to the season was back.
“The way we dominated that game from beginning to end really let us know, ‘Hey we’re locked in,’ ” Person said. “I think what also motivated us too is that we started to hear that chatter, that people were now kinda underestimating us, thinking that we were kinda limping into the tournament, and ‘Oh, maybe Michigan isn’t as good as everybody thought.’ ”
Six years later, that same doubt has come to surround a team that was ranked second in the country just eight weeks ago.
Beilein refuses to draw any parallels to that year, calling each season too unique to compare.
On the court, he’s right. This year’s team is second in adjusted defensive efficiency, but often comes undone on the offensive end. In 2013, it was a defense that eluded the nation’s best offense. And when I asked Morgan whether I forgot any key ingredients to that run, he responded with two words: “Trey Burke.”
But the similarities, as those 2013 players will tell you, are too striking to ignore. As for the Trey Burke question?
Bartelstein might have the answer:
“You can become a legend during this time of year.”
In 2013, Burke did just that. Last year, it was Jordan Poole. This year, Michigan has yet to find its go-to star. For Beilein’s botanical lessons to pay off, it might need to do just that.