Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein keeps a ledger of how many practices his team has had and how many more it has left. Entering Tuesday, the count read 82 down, 18 to go. It’s not a countdown to the end of the season, he says, but a way to keep track of how much time the Wolverines (7-3 Big Ten, 17-6 overall) have to improve.
After a rough week at home in which Michigan got played out of its own arena twice — first by Indiana and then by Michigan State — Beilein probably wishes the number in the second column was greater. With the Big Ten Tournament in just four weeks, Beilein is tasked with turning around a team that’s headed in the wrong direction after getting a reality check last week.
“You only seem to be as good as your last game, and that just weighs on you,” Beilein said Tuesday. “And we weren’t very good our last two games. … You just got to keep trying to refresh yourself and get better, but you have to get a win somewhere along the line again to feel good. Any type of win at any place against anybody.”
Lucky for Beilein and the Wolverines, their next opportunity for a win comes Wednesday night against Minnesota. The Golden Gophers (0-11, 6-17) still haven’t won a conference game and haven’t won a game at all since Dec. 16. However, Minnesota has played a handful of tight games over the last month despite being unable to turn any into wins.
Since falling to Michigan in Ann Arbor three weeks ago, the Golden Gophers have hung in against the likes of Illinois, Purdue and Indiana. They forced a 21st-ranked Boilermakers team into a game that came down to the final seconds and nearly took down a 19th-ranked Hoosiers squad on the road a few days later before ultimately falling, 74-68. But Thursday, Minnesota still proved extremely vulnerable, getting blown out by an unimpressive Northwestern team.
In its meeting earlier this year, Michigan squeezed out a 74-69 win despite lacking energy on the court and shooting just 37 percent from the field. Another lackluster effort could still potentially earn a win for the Wolverines — Minnesota shoots just 41 percent as a team — but after two sluggish showings last week, another would add to a list of problems Michigan has faced lately.
Despite the two straight losses, Beilein says team morale isn’t down.
“(There’s been) really good energy in practice, and there’s nobody hanging their heads in practice,” Beilein said. “The attitude is good as far as getting the improvement. How we’re getting there is so slow, and that’s what’s so frustrating.”
Also frustrating for Michigan is the extended time senior guard Caris LeVert has missed with a lower left leg injury. The All-American candidate has missed 10 games since suffering the injury on Dec. 30. Beilein hasn’t been specific about a timetable for his potential return but offered more optimistic news Tuesday, including that LeVert practiced for an hour Monday and is pain-free. Beilein also said that the decision as to when he returns is completely up to LeVert and could even come as late as during Michigan’s shootaround Wednesday.
“We’ll go into practice today, and we’ll have some actions for him defensively and offensively that he’s got to learn, and then you just don’t know what it’s going to be like,” Beilein said. “It’s extremely important that he plays when he’s ready to play and that he’s not risking any further injury. So it’s a puzzle.”
With just 17 practices remaining after Tuesday’s, the time to put the pieces together and assemble a finished product that qualifies for the NCAA Tournament is running out.