COLUMBUS — Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

The Michigan basketball team, coming off a recent big win over rival Michigan State, heads down to Columbus to take on a top-five Ohio State team. The Wolverines battle the whole way through. After a low-scoring opening, it’s a one-possession game at halftime, and it stays close until pretty late in the second half.

But at that point, the more talented Buckeyes assert their will and Michigan can’t answer their run, eventually dropping the game by a final score that isn’t indicative of how close the matchup truly was.

Yes, I’m talking about No. 20 Michigan’s 64-49 loss to No. 4 Ohio State on Sunday afternoon. But I could also be talking about the Wolverines’ trip down here on Feb. 3 of last year — it was pretty much the same story, except Michigan had the halftime lead.

Last year, my colleague Luke Pasch wrote in this space that while the Wolverines battled admirably, they were still too young and in need of a talent-and-experience upgrade that the next season promised. (He also predicted that Michigan would win this game this season, on the assumptions that Darius Morris would return to Ann Arbor and Jared Sullinger would dart for the NBA. Nobody confuses Luke for a ginger Nostradamus.)

Michigan is a much different team than last season. They aren’t dominated by freshmen anymore. They actually have seniors this time around. And I certainly think this edition of the Wolverines is better. Whereas the loss last season put their Big Ten record at 2-7, they’re just one game out of first place in the conference at 6-3 after this one.

But Luke’s words still ring true. Fans were thrilled that Michigan performed as well as it did last season simply because the performance was ahead of schedule — the team was really building toward the future. Next year, some surely thought, we won’t be inexperienced. We won’t be too young to compete for championships.

But even though most of the Wolverines now have a full year under their belt, it doesn’t suddenly make them experienced vets.

Sophomores are largely better to have than freshmen, but they still aren’t even upperclassmen. They’re still relatively inexperienced, and they still have plenty to work on before they reach their ceilings. (Maybe this isn’t true for the five-star, McDonald’s All-American types, but Michigan doesn’t have any of those on its roster.)

And the loss to Ohio State was a reminder that, for all the experience that key freshmen got last season,the players aren’t as ripe as Michigan coach John Beilein wants them to be.

Redshirt sophomore forward Jordan Morgan has done a much better job of staying out of foul trouble so far this season. But faced with his biggest challenge yet in Buckeye bruiser Jared Sullinger, he reverted to his old ways, picking up his fourth foul early in the second half.

It was the definition of needless.

Tim Hardaway Jr. was good against the Buckeyes, but his inconsistencies elsewhere have been well-documented. And sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz has proven my argument better than any other player with his up-and-down performances this season. He picked up his fourth foul just a couple minutes after Morgan, and like a lot of other second-year players, often shows up big or completely disappears in games.

Of course, there’s also the fact that the team’s best player this year — playing Beilein’s most important position, no less — is the least experienced of them all. Trey Burke hasn’t often played like a freshman this season, but he’s still a rookie. For all his skills, he has more developing to do.

This isn’t to say that this year is over, and that we shouldn’t have high expectations until next season, when all the sophomores are juniors and Beilein brings in what is by far his most talented crop of recruits.

This edition of Michigan is, without a doubt, a good team, and has the potential to make a pretty deep run in the NCAA Tournament. But that doesn’t mean that we should expect all the growing pains to go away. Losses like this one are going to happen because the Wolverines still don’t have all the weapons they need.

“I think every (first) half we play here has been (close), and then (Ohio State) just has tremendous talent,” Beilein said after the loss. “We have to hit the open shots that we had, and we have to finish plays at the rim to stay in there.”

Those are plays that truly experienced, veteran teams make without even thinking — when Michigan can do that consistently, you’ll know Beilein has the seasoned team he wants.

By the end of last season, the freshmen were playing beyond their years. And based on Beilein’s track record of teams improving over the course of a season, we can expect them to once again make significant progress before the year is over.

But before you get too frustrated by performances like Sunday’s, just remember: most of the team is still young. They’re building, but construction isn’t finished just yet.

Estes had to try hard to keep from making a Bob the Builder reference. He can be reached at benestes@umich.edu or on Twitter @benestes91.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.