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On Tuesday, the Michigan men’s basketball team went toe-to-toe with No. 3 Virginia, coming up just short of an impressive upset bid after a second half collapse. But on Sunday, the Wolverines have an opportunity to build on that tantalizing performance against another highly-ranked opponent. As Michigan seeks a different outcome in its upcoming matchup against No. 19 Kentucky, it will do so in a different environment — one unfamiliar to both teams.  

The Wolverines are set to face the Wildcats in London, a contest scheduled three years ago in what was supposed to be a three part series that saw each team host its opponent before matching up in England. The London matchup was originally slated for December 2020, but was canceled due to COVID-19. Difficulties facilitated by the pandemic prevented Michigan from hosting Kentucky in the 2021-22 season, but this year, without pandemic-induced issues, the two teams will finally face off across the pond.

“Hopefully, those fans that are in London embrace the Michigan basketball team as well as the Michigan basketball spirit,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said Monday. “I think it’s gonna be great, now you got two powerhouses, Kentucky and Michigan, playing abroad.”

Just one day after their loss to the Cavaliers, the Wolverines were forced to pivot, leaving the country — and with it — any regrets from Tuesday’s defeat.

Although Michigan enters Sunday’s match nursing a loss, it is also coming off one of its strongest showings of the season — despite adding a tally to the loss column.

“How we competed, the effort that we brought for 40 minutes, that’s the great positive that you can take away from (the Virginia) game,” Howard said after Tuesday’s loss to Virginia. “To see how our energy (and the energy) that our fans brought tonight, … that just fed life into our group.”

Against the Cavaliers, the Wolverines came out strong, shooting well from behind the arc right out of the gates — something they struggled to do in previous contests. They also found ways to slow down Virginia’s strong offense, seeming to begin to finally mold on the defensive end. But in the second half, Michigan went cold from the 3-point line, and the Cavaliers’ potent offense proved too difficult to stop. 

Regardless of the outcome, facing competitors of Virginia and Kentucky’s caliber will give the Wolverines key experience as Big Ten play approaches.

After sinking to the level of lowly opponents in earlier non-conference games, this was the first glimpse of Michigan playing up to its competition. If it can bring that same effort and energy it showed in the first half, and grow from its second half shortcomings, it has a chance to not only contend against, but upset the Wildcats.

“I would say (Tuesday) was probably the biggest step that we took,” junior center Hunter Dickinson said after Tuesday’s loss to Virginia. “I think it was just a really good showing for us, in our discipline, I think that’s something that we were lacking in the first part of the season. … Virginia runs a good offense,  … so they’re gonna make you really be solid and patient on defense, and that’s something that we were lacking before this game.”

But the Wolverines have their work cut out if they want to take another step forward on Sunday. Four of Kentucky’s five starters — including last season’s AP Player of the Year, forward Oscar Tshiebwe — are seniors, giving the Wildcats an upper hand in terms of experience compared to Michigan’s young core. 

Kentucky’s ability to score through a variety of players is another advantage it holds. Five Wildcats average over 10 points per game. On the other hand, the Wolverines have found the majority of their offense through Dickinson and freshman wing Jett Howard, who have combined for an average of 34.2 points per game. For Michigan to find success against a deep Kentucky team, finding other sources of production will be key.

“I think (Virginia) was a good building block,” Dickinson said. “Especially for the next game that we play, because that’s gonna be another great team as well.” 

If the Wolverines can take that building block and continue to improve upon it, they may be able to finish what they came close to doing on Tuesday and get a quality win over a ranked opponent. But if they can’t contain the Wildcats’ commanding offense and find consistency behind the arc for a full 40 minutes, it will be a long plane ride back to the colonies.