CHICAGO — It was exactly six weeks ago that Michigan, the No. 1 team in the nation, departed from Ann Arbor en route to Bloomington for a top-3 tussle with the Hoosiers; a meager six weeks since the Wolverines were sitting pretty with just one loss.
It was the height of the hype machine for the team led by Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and the ‘Fresh Five,’ the new quintet of freshmen that had lifted Michigan to the top of the proverbial basketball world. Meanwhile, Jalen Rose — the most visible, outspoken member of the original Fab Five, the last Wolverine squad to reach the Final Four — took to Sportscenter saying that he and the other four members would figure out a way to be sitting courtside in Atlanta to “watch our Wolverines win the championship.”
The next day, Saturday, Feb. 2, Michigan suffered an eight-point loss to Indiana. Over the next six grueling weeks, the Wolverines would lose five more times, culminating with Friday’s 68-59 loss to Wisconsin in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament.
And what a difference those six weeks have made. Prior to and even after the Indiana loss, a Final Four appearance was the expectation, not the hope. One of the biggest takeaways from that loss appeared to be that Michigan would have to fight an uphill battle against the Hoosiers to win the Midwest bracket’s No. 1 seed in order to play in Indianapolis — the closest of the four regions. There was little indication that it’d be the first of three losses in four games.
Six weeks later, on the heels of the second-round exit, the Wolverines aren’t even locked into a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which could mean a blown opportunity to play the opening weekend in front of a home crowd at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
It’s a difficult perspective to have, that a six-loss season heading into March Madness could be viewed with such disappointment given the state of the program just a few years ago, when it was holding celebrations at Crisler Arena just for receiving a bid to the Big Dance. Perhaps some of that is because few realized that Michigan, despite all of its athletic prowess and exciting style of play, was obviously overrated — a beneficiary of an unintimidating non-conference schedule, a back-loaded conference slate and Burke, the nation’s best player.
But what’s been most frustrating is that in each of their losses, the Wolverines have reverted back to bad habits— mental lapses and failing to box out — on the defensive end. There have been glimpses of progress, most notably during home wins over Michigan State and Ohio State, but Michigan hasn’t proven that it can avoid defaulting to old tendencies in ensuing games. Now it’s mid March, and instead of spending its week fine tuning small intricacies and prepping for the first weekend of the Tournament, it has to keep beating the same, hopefully not-dead horse on defense.
“We’ve really got to grow defensively,” Michigan coach John Beilein said, echoing statements he’s made for the past several weeks.
“We’ll fix it the best we can. We have been trying all year long.”
And Beilein wasn’t alone in his troubling assessment of how much work the team needs to do in such little time. Freshman forward Mitch McGary said the Wolverines play well in practice, but still “need to learn to carry it over into the games,” while he and freshman forward Glenn Robinson III both said the team failed to effectively communicate defensively in the second half — a sign of inexperience.
Burke, Michigan’s savior all season, put it bluntly.
“We can’t continue to make the same mistakes because sooner or later, we’ll be done,” he said. “Hopefully we learn from this because next time we don’t learn from it, we’ll be done for the season.”
When asked what positives can be taken from Friday’s meltdown, Jordan Morgan wasted no words.
“We’ve got more basketball to play.”
Expectations have changed in Ann Arbor. Instead of a trip to Atlanta, fans are now just hoping Michigan makes it out of the first weekend, and with the way the team has been playing, an Elite Eight appearance would be considered surprising by many.
But some things haven’t changed in the past six weeks. The Wolverines are still more talented than all but a few teams in the nation, have an elite X’s-and-O’s coach that make the short turnarounds and preparations in March difficult to defend, and most importantly, a healthy Burke — poised for one final run in a Wolverine uniform before he likely trades it for one with an NBA logo — is good enough to single-handedly beat anyone.
Michigan has two weeks to leave a legacy, and in the third — with or without Rose and Co. courtside — it’ll cement it with a trip to the Final Four.
Daniel Wasserman can be reached at email@example.com, or Twitter @d_wasserman.