For weeks, even as the Michigan men’s basketball team continued to best its competition, the prevailing narrative surrounding the program remained unchanged.
Skeptics wanted to see how the Wolverines would fare against an opponent from the Big Ten’s upper-echelon before determining whether the Wolverines were indeed for real.
After three straight demolitions of ranked opponents — capped off by a 77-54 obliteration of No. 9 Wisconsin on Tuesday night — that narrative of insufficiency is firmly out the window. In pummeling the Badgers, Michigan announced itself as a bonafide contender and, in the process, shifted its national perception.
“Being the team that’s No. 1 in the Big Ten, everyone’s giving you their best shot,” senior guard Chaundee Brown said during a Zoom call with reporters on Thursday. “Like I said before, we’re not the underdog anymore.”
Eleven games into the season, the Wolverines have evolved from fringe contender to formidable foe, perched alone atop the Big Ten standings. At this point, November’s overtime affair with a middling Oakland team is nothing but a distant memory and a meme.
Now, though, Michigan will have to acclimate to playing with a target on its back. Brown isn’t fazed by the adjustment.
“(We) like that,” Brown said. “That competition, teams coming in, giving their best shot at us — cause I feel like myself and especially the rest of the team, we respond well in that.”
According to assistant coach Howard Eisley, the Wolverines’ biggest challenge is not on the court but rather mentally, especially in not wanting to grow complacent with their torrid start.
“Human nature is always to (say), ‘OK, we’re 11-0, we’re pretty good,’ and to have that type of attitude,” Eisley said. “That’s something we have to remind each other of, that (there are) bigger goals out there for us.
“We feel like we are chasing something bigger than just being 11-0. We are coming with our lunch pail and hard hats every day, knowing we have to continue to get better each day. I think that’s something our guys are really embracing.”
It’s a mentality that starts at the top. After the Wisconsin victory, Michigan coach Juwan Howard sang the same tune in his postgame press conference.
“I’m never satisfied,” Howard said. “There’s room for improvement. We will go back and watch film and see how they can get better because tonight I want them to enjoy it, tomorrow enjoy it, but on Thursday, when we come back into the gym, we need to prepare and improve. They know I’ll have some things on the list and areas that we can get better with.”
According to Brown, the emphasis of Thursday’s practice was on the defensive end, as it has been in prior weeks. After battling inconsistency throughout the early portion of the season, Michigan has seen the fruits of its labor in a recent defensive resurgence.
The Wolverines have stifled their last three opponents to a combined average of 59 points per game. As a result, Michigan is now the second-best scoring defense in the Big Ten behind Wisconsin, conceding just 65.8 points per game.
Still, the Wolverines are hungry for more.
“I feel like we have to have more guys communicating,” Brown said. “Coach Howard always says you gotta have six guys on the court, meaning your voice as well. So that is key. If someone gets beat off the dribble, we gotta help out. … And the defensive end, that’s where you win games.”
Michigan will first put its improvements to the test Saturday in Minnesota, ten days after running the Golden Gophers off the court in an 82-57 onslaught. Despite that outcome, the Wolverines are careful not to overlook their competition.
“We know that they’re not gonna accept the way we beat them here, and they’re gonna be up for the challenge,” Eisley said. “Knowing that they’re gonna come out and really try to jump on us. They play a lot more confident at home. It’s gonna be a good challenge for us. We’re looking forward to it.”
Against Wisconsin, Michigan made a deafening statement. Yet in a stacked Big Ten conference, there is little leeway to relish in one’s accomplishments. This weekend, Michigan will hope to maintain its newly-minted narrative and not suffer a setback.