“Today was a really big step for us.”
That was the sentiment junior center Hunter Dickinson provided to open the postgame press conference after the Michigan men’s basketball team’s loss to No. 3 Virginia on Tuesday night.
But Dickinson didn’t stop there.
“I think (this game) means that we obviously are one of the top teams in the country.”
In the Wolverines’ loss to the Cavaliers, a close game that nobody thought they had a chance of winning, they took a step. A step from their blowout loss to Arizona State in the early season. A step from the close games they’ve failed to shine in against unranked teams clearly below their caliber.
And in doing so, Michigan took a step toward the team that the Wolverines desperately believe they can be.
All preseason, Michigan echoed the same sentiment: Championships aren’t won in November. It’s a common refrain, and one that makes sense for most programs this early in the year. But the remaining non-conference schedule — which includes games against ranked foes in Kentucky and North Carolina — necessitates a leap.
Tuesday night might have been a step, but these steps Michigan is adamant it’s making need to catapult into a jump, a bound, a hop away from its dismal performances early in the season.
Starting the season ranked 22nd in the country, the Wolverines weren’t necessarily where they wanted to be; but nevertheless, Michigan was unfazed, believing that its strength of schedule and early season play would show its caliber. Instead, after a few early convincing showings, the Wolverines began to play down to their opponents. Against Eastern Michigan, they succumbed to the harsh environment, narrowly scraping by with a win versus a team that has lost five straight games since. Against Arizona State, all of the small problems sprinkled throughout the previous games coalesced into major problems, leading to their first loss of the season. And it let MAC opponent Ohio take it to overtime, too.
“Really just focus on not losing just trying to get the win, sophomore guard Kobe Bufkin said after the Ohio matchup. “Never want to get on a losing streak. So just try to dig deep and win by any means possible.”
Against Virginia, it seemed like Michigan would finally turn the page. As it led the Cavaliers by 11 points going into halftime, it appeared to be the Wolverines’ time to put aside their early-season shortcomings and make the jump. By shooting their best 3-point percentage thus far and dominating the boards, they were on track to leap past the concerns that have plagued them this season.
Instead, Michigan succumbed to its old habits in the second half. Missed 3-pointers, errant passes and poor defensive assignments led to the Wolverines’ eventual downfall. While it came much later in the game than anyone expected, it still marks a loss in the record book — one they’ll want back in March.
“We just didn’t execute down the stretch,” junior forward Terrance Williams II said. “We turned the ball over a couple of times down the stretch. We just didn’t execute what we drew up and the ball just didn’t fall our way today in the last couple of minutes.”
Playing up to the level of the third-ranked team in the country proved that Michigan is capable of hanging with the upper echelon of college basketball, one that it found itself in with multiple Sweet 16 runs in the NCAA Tournament over the past few seasons.
They’ll have a chance to do so against other top teams in their non-conference schedule like Kentucky and North Carolina, and against a stacked Big Ten Conference.
But they have to make those leaps sooner rather than later.
Otherwise, they’ll have to settle for mere steps — and risk missing out on their goals, too.