VILLANOVA, Pa. — The question came: How do you keep your team level-headed after a blowout like this?
John Beilein gave a firm and predictable answer.
“This is a November win. That’s all it is,” the Michigan men’s basketball coach said. “Just like a November loss. That’s all it is.”
No one expected Beilein to proclaim his team world-beaters after one early victory, no matter the magnitude. Coaches often have a habit of understatement, and it’s not for nothing. No coach, and certainly not Beilein, wants to risk overinflating their team’s ego.
But without the need for coachspeak, let’s be clear about something:
This was no mere ‘November win.’
In case you missed it, or it hasn’t totally sunk in: the 18th-ranked Wolverines didn’t just beat No. 8 Villanova on the road — they ran the defending national champions out of their own, newly-renovated gym, 73-46. And it was never even a contest.
Michigan scored first. It led 8-2 at the first timeout. 20-8 at the first half’s midway point. 36-13 at the under-4 media timeout. 44-17 at halftime. You get the idea.
The game wasn’t any closer than the final score indicates. The Wildcats had no answer for the Wolverines when they went big; they had no answer when they went small. There was no answer in the halfcourt; no answer in transition. I’m not going to bother listing any specific stats here. Just pull up a boxscore. You won’t find anything that doesn’t illustrate sheer, unadulterated dominance.
Let’s take Beilein at his word for a moment. We’ll admit this was just a ‘November win.’ When’s the last time Michigan had a November win that looked anything like what happened Wednesday night?
We have to go back to 2012-2013 — a season in which the Wolverines made it to the national championship game — for their last win over a top-25 team in the season’s first two months; a win at home against North Carolina State. If we don’t restrict this exercise to this specific point in the season, the Villanova beatdown was the Wolverines’ largest-ever road win over a ranked opponent.
Some of Michigan’s ‘November losses’ are even more illuminating. The Wolverines’ marquee non-conference road game last year was an 86-71 defeat to No. 13 North Carolina. A season before that, it was a 102-84 loss at No. 2 UCLA. Something called ‘New Jersey Institute of Technology’ won at Crisler Center four years ago.
The real reason Wednesday’s game was so different, not simply a run-of-the-mill November win?
Here’s some of what the Wolverines had to say after last season’s loss in Chapel Hill:
Then-freshman guard Eli Brooks: “Just (not enough) grit. (We weren’t) able to get down and dirty.”
Beilein: “It’s one that we’ve got to grow from. But I’m disappointed that some of the veterans right now weren’t as gritty as they’ve been in the past.”
No one was saying anything close to that in the media room at Finneran Pavilion on Wednesday night. No one has said anything close to that this season.
Not with this Michigan team.
For example, take Zavier Simpson and Charles Matthews — the Wolverines’ captains, tone-setters and unofficial spokesmen.
Matthews was a man possessed against Villanova. The 6-foot-6 redshirt junior wing scored 19 points on 7-for-13 shooting, grabbed four rebounds and blocked three shots. His freakish athleticism was on display with every loose ball; every closeout on Wildcat sharpshooter Phil Booth; every high-flying dunk or turnaround jumper.
With 6:36 to play in the first half, sophomore forward Isaiah Livers caught the ball deep in the post. Matthews sprinted towards the basket, saw Livers’ shot hit high off the backboard and timed his leap perfectly. He slammed home the putback, hung on the rim with flailing legs and punctuated his landing with an emphatic yell. That was Matthews’ — and Michigan’s — night in one play.
Simpson, meanwhile, was his normal pitbull self. With 13 minutes remaining, the junior point guard ripped the ball away from Collin Gillespie for one of his six steals and was off to the races before Villanova forward Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree lunged for the ball, grabbed Simpson and held on a bit too long.
Freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis wasn’t happy and let Cosby-Roundtree know it. The rest of the Wolverines on the court followed his lead, and a close-quarters war of words ensued.
“Right or wrong, we got to stick up for each other, we’re gonna ride or die for each other,” Matthews said. “You watch the clip, all five of us came in that huddle. That’s just how we’re raised.”
Added Beilein: “(Simpson’s) just such a tough kid … they look at him and they see leadership all over him.”
Like Matthews’ dunk, that was Simpson summed up in one play. Michigan’s first line of defense never gave an inch all night — offensively, defensively or mentally — and his teammates did the same. Unlike last year against North Carolina, the Wolverines were unafraid to outgrit their opponent; to get down and dirty; to take on the challenge.
“(Simpson and Matthews), this is what they do,” Beilein said. “This is what they love to do and this is what they do for our team. Our two captains, they have a defensive mindset. (Matthews) wants to know that he’s guarding Booth out there, (Simpson) wants to know that he’s guarding Gillespie out there. And that’s what makes them go.”
There are still caveats, of course. Villanova’s a good team, but not quite the juggernaut it was last year. Michigan’s played just three games this season.
But those caveats would still exist, regardless of what happened Wednesday night. All there is to do right now is to take it as it appears.
Here’s what that was: a Wolverine team that plays tough, knows it’s tough and refuses to back down from anyone or anything; a team that’s farther along at this point in the season than any Wolverine team in recent memory.
And now it has the biggest ‘November win’ of the Beilein era to show for it.
Shames can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Jacob_Shames.