LAHAINA, Hawaii — They say if you want to learn the true nature of a man, you put him in the worst possible conditions.
That’s when his true character comes out — in the most difficult of circumstances, with no one to rely on but himself, with no recourse but to fight on. The alternative? Failure.
That’s the situation the Michigan basketball team found itself in this week. Granted, Hawaii isn’t exactly the desolate landscape one pictures when you start talking about the life-or-death scenarios. Having been on Maui covering the team for the past few days, it truly is a breathtaking place. As soon as the Michigan winter sets in, you might find me transferring to Maui Community College to finish out my degree.
But in college basketball terms, this was the Thunderdome of sorts. The Maui Invitational is considered one of the elite preseason tournaments, if not the very best. This year, it definitely was the preeminent competition. The Maui field had four ranked teams, all in the top-15 — No. 6 Duke, No. 8 Memphis, No. 14 Kansas and No. 15 Michigan.
And that wasn’t all. The tournament also had traditional college basketball powers Georgetown and UCLA. Both will probably have down years by their traditional standards, but they still have talent and will be in the NCAA Tournament conversation all the way through March.
In their three games on the mainland, the Wolverines didn’t seem they belonged with the rest of the elite field. Exhibit A was scoring just 59 points against Ferris State, a Division-II school. Exhibit B was dropping just 64 points on Towson, who the Jayhawks put 100 on.
It got worse with Exhibit C, which was downright nasty. In its final tune-up before traveling to the islands, Michigan barely squeaked by Western Illinois at Crisler Arena, winning by just four points. No, not Illinois — Western Illinois.
After that game, Michigan coach John Beilein and his players didn’t sound concerned at all. They said it was good experience, battling with a team until the very end and still managing to come away on top. Considering that it came against the Fighting Leathernecks of Western Illinois, that angle was as ridiculous then as it is now.
But the Wolverines are the ones laughing now, because they proved in Maui that they’re already national contenders.
Each game revealed a bit of Michigan’s true character. Against Memphis, many analysts expected the Wolverines to get outmuscled by the longer, stronger, much more athletic Tigers. But Michigan didn’t just go toe-to-toe with its opponent, it won the battle of physical wills, outrebounding them by nine.
Memphis was determined to make the game a combination rugby scrum and track meet after halftime, two styles that the Wolverines would seemingly struggle with — instead, they thrived.
And though Michigan dropped its contest with the Blue Devils, it definitely proved that it belonged on the same court as them — something Beilein insists his team knew already. After Duke got to a fast start, it easily could have rolled right over the Wolverines. But Michigan refused to quit and turned the game into a battle to the very end (and if it weren’t for otherworldly outside shooting by the Blue Devils, Michigan would’ve been playing for the Maui championship on Wednesday).
This team, and the program at large, is well past the point of moral victories, but nonetheless, Michigan proved its mettle, even in a loss.
Against UCLA, the Wolverines could’ve come out flat — they had just played two exhausting, physical games in back-to-back days, the second of which was a disheartening loss. But they charged out of the gates, gaining control against the Bruins and never relinquishing it, even when UCLA threatened to make it a game.
After six games, several truths are apparent. Sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. is a star, averaging 20 points per game against top competition in the tournament. Each opposing coach credited him and causally called him a pro, as if there weren’t any alternative.
And while redshirt sophomore forward Jordan Morgan continues to have problems staying out of foul trouble, sophomore forward Jon Horford has proven a capable backup option — he still struggles with consistency himself, and no one will mistake him for an All-Big Ten player, but he’s not the lost freshman he was a year ago.
Most importantly, freshman point guard Trey Burke has already made observers forget about Darius Morris. The freshman has played beyond his years. He has shown great scoring ability and he’s played with poise — a trait most rookies can’t claim.
For an offense and team that relies so heavily on a point guard’s steady hand, Burke’s emergence is enormous.
The expectations must be raised. The Wolverines weren’t picked in the top three of the Big Ten before the season, but now anything less than serious contention for a conference title will be a disappointment.
No, Michigan didn’t win the Maui Invitational title it coveted so dearly. The team isn’t one of the super-elite in the country, and it’s way too early to start talking about a Final Four appearance.
But a potential trip to New Orleans is suddenly on the table — faced with its toughest, most difficult task of the early season, Michigan revealed that much.