BLOOMINGTON – When the Michigan basketball team began its improbable 13-game winning streak just two months ago, it was playing for one thing, and one thing only – pride.
There was no NCAA Tournament berth to play for. At 0-6, the idea of being able to compete for the Big Ten championship was ludicrous. Michigan was the laughing stock of the conference – again. Then, something happened.
It all started with pride – that little voice inside your head that’s always fuckin’ with you. No Michigan player was even thinking about a Big Ten title two months ago.
But the past two weeks, basketball fever has swept through Ann Arbor, a previously dormant basketball town, and everyone with a maize-and-blue heart has been thinking big picture. Big Ten this, Big Ten that. I was a victim just like you. And don’t think that the young Wolverines didn’t fall into our trap.
Last night in Bloomington, for the first time since Michigan’s 81-59 loss to Duke on Dec. 7, the Wolverines crumbled. They crumbled because they were individuals, thinking about something more than just playing winning basketball for their teammates – maybe how great it would be to win a Big Ten title and be heroes?
“We weren’t doing anything together tonight,” Michigan freshman Lester Abram said. “It was like everything was one-on-one.
“It just seemed like Indiana just wanted the game more than we did tonight.”
Even coach Tommy Amaker said that last night’s 63-49 loss to Indiana was “uncharacteristic of the team we’ve been the past two months.”
That’s because for 32 minutes of action, the Wolverines weren’t a team. In road losses at Illinois and Minnesota, Michigan played its game for the majority of each contest, but just fell to the hands of a tough team in an even tougher environment.
But this one will be hard to swallow. The Wolverines scored just 18 points in the first half, as their ball movement resembled that of the Brian Ellerbe era. They stood around and watched instead of taking the ball to the hoop and earning easy points at the line. Michigan shot no free throws in the first half and just five for the game.
Senior LaVell Blanchard, who Amaker has repeatedly said must play well for the Wolverines to win, continued his magic act, as he disappeared for long stretches of the game and led the Wolverines with four turnovers. All Blanchard could say after the game was “we weren’t hitting our shots today.” What he neglected to mention was that his team wasn’t hitting the floor for loose balls or hitting the boards on defense, as Indiana wrestled away a 40-31 rebounding advantage with a much smaller lineup on the floor for most of the game.
“That’s what happens when you outwork and outhustle people,” Amaker said.
He knows those traits well. It’s what he instilled in his team during the run. Without them, they’re a 14-point loser to an underachieving Indiana team.
Thankfully for the Wolverines, they received a gift two hours after their game finished, as Purdue fell to Northwestern on the road, 78-67. Wisconsin now joins the Boilermakers and Wolverines at first place in the Big Ten with a 7-3 record.
But the Wolverines need to forget all that, and go back to the blue-collar mentality that has propelled them to the top of the standings.
Michigan has lost its last three on the road, and in order for the Wolverines to … well, you know … they will have to win at least one more game (probably two) away from their stronghold, Crisler Arena.
Blanchard’s prescription? “We need to watch film and listen to what coach has to say.”
But Blanchard and the Wolverines won’t get what they need from Amaker. It’s going to take each player in that lockerroom looking each other in the eye, and listening to that familiar little voice inside their head.
J. Brady McCollough can be reached at email@example.com.