STATE COLLEGE — Forget what the
Michigan players said before the Michigan State game. Forget what
they preached before heading to Wisconsin.

Mira Levitan
Daniel Horton and the Wolverines have struggled early in their conference schedule, but wins in their next couple games would get them right back in the hunt for the NCAA Tournament. (TONY DING/Daily)
Mira Levitan

Saturday, at Penn State, the Wolverines were faced with their
first true “must-win” situation of the year.

And while it didn’t end up being Michigan’s best
game of the season, there’s only one thing that a team needs
to do in a “must-win” situation … it must
win.

The Wolverines accomplished that mission, quickly jumping out to
a big lead on Penn State, and then stopping the Nittany Lions from
ever really making a run. All of a sudden, Michigan is 2-3 in the
conference and returns to Crisler Arena for a home game against
Iowa on Wednesday. A win here, and Michigan’s back to
3-3.

And in the topsy-turvy world of the Big Ten race this season,
3-3 would be right smack- dab in the middle of the hunt.

“We never did panic,” Michigan forward Bernard
Robinson said. “We knew it was going to be a long season and
that this wasn’t over for us.

“We told ourselves that as a team — that it
wasn’t the time to panic. Our backs were against the wall,
but it wasn’t time to panic.”

Well, let’s make it that their backs are against the
wall.

One win over a mediocre-at-best Penn State team isn’t
going to completely erase the three-game losing streak that the
Wolverines were coming off of. Not many conference champions lose
three in a row and go on to take the conference crown.

The Wolverines’ backs are still against the wall because
of a schedule that sees three of the next five games on the road,
and one of the two home contests is against co-Big Ten leader
Purdue.

But when you look at the Big Ten — a conference
that’s about as stable as a teeter-totter with two
hyperactive kids on it —it would be foolish to write Michigan
off when talking about teams with championship capabilities.

Just because Michigan was put in a hole, it doesn’t mean
that the Wolverines can’t recover during their last 11
conference games.

“It is very difficult in our league to go on the road for
three consecutive games,” Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said.
“Those three games can really change the course of your
season — we definitely thought this game was critical.

“We looked at this game as a situation where our backs
were against the wall, and I think we played with that sense of
urgency this afternoon.”

The chore for the Wolverines now is to maintain that sense of
urgency.

You can’t challenge for a conference title with an
on-again, off-again mentality. It’s got to be there every
night.

To be honest, though, the most encouraging sign I saw at Penn
State came after the game.

Entering the Michigan lockerroom, I expected to see a jubilant
bunch — the Wolverines had just taken it to Penn State on the
road, the losing streak was over and they were heading home.

Instead, the scene was subdued. The Wolverines sat there,
looking content but not overly excited. They spoke of not getting
too high after a win, just as they hadn’t gotten too low
after three losses.

They sounded like players who expected to rout Penn State, like
a team that understood how quickly things can change in the Big
Ten.

The whole team sat there, knowing the near-panic that had set in
for Michigan fans following that third-straight loss, and just had
a collective look of “See, we told you not to
worry.”

Forward Brent Petway, for example, spoke about how the
Wolverines just needed to get back in the win column — and
now that they had, a win streak might not be far off.

“Definitely,” said Petway, affirming the notion that
a win over Penn State could get this team rolling.

“This game can start it off for us, so if we can get a win
back at home, it would be a new race in the Big Ten.”

That’s what came out of beating Penn State in an arena
that was so quiet at times, you could hear Penn State forward Jan
Jagla’s points-per-game average drop.

Instead of the questions that were hounding this team during
three subpar games, Saturday’s effort affords the Wolverines
a chance to sit back and realize that they are — despite
still not really hitting on all cylinders — right in the
thick of the Big Ten race.

And when they do, finally, see everyone put it together all at
once, there’s no telling what could happen. The talent level
on this team is, without a doubt, comparable to the
conference’s elite teams.

So now Michigan will get back to work and do what it takes to
get this team playing at the level it is capable of playing at.

At some point, it probably will happen. Don’t panic.

The Wolverines certainly won’t.

 

Chris Burke would like to thank King’s Restaurant in
Barkeyville, Pa., for his serving of country-fried steak with
sausage gravy. He can be reached at
“mailto:chrisbur@umich.edu”>chrisbur@umich.edu.

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