On the corner of Harrison Road and Kalamazoo Street, $10 could’ve bought you the state’s most talked about T-shirt on Tuesday night. The “YOU OFF” shirts were actually priced at $15, but the street vendors selling them put up as much of a fight about holding to the listing price as Michigan put up against Michigan State at the Breslin Center across the street.
WE ON. The moniker, nothing but irrelevant semantics, originated when someone from the basketball team stumbled upon Adidas shirts that bore the phrase — entirely unrelated to Michigan until the Wolverines donned the shirts at Madison Square Garden and won the NIT Preseason Tip-Off.
The phrase could’ve stopped there, until someone decided to give the tagline a meaning: When Everyone Operates N*Sync (you know, like the boy band).
Michigan would go on to claim the No. 1 ranking, and all was well, until a tough loss at Indiana turned into another road loss at Wisconsin and then spiraled out of control in East Lansing.
Zack Novak was in the building, enjoying part of his midseason week off from his professional team in the Netherlands.
Walking to and from his seat nestled inside the student section, Novak condescendingly smiled, waved and even yapped back at each Izzone member who screamed obscenities at him. He didn’t just embrace the vulgarity thrown at him, he invited it.
“I beat you guys all by myself two years ago,” he chirped at a group of students sitting behind him before even settling into his own seat.
The game he was referring to, an upset over the Spartans in 2011, cemented Novak’s legend in Michigan history when he went on a screaming tirade at his teammates in a second-half timeout.
But Tuesday, sitting just a mere five or six feet from where he laid out the tongue-lashing, he watched silently as time and time again, Michigan coach John Beilein called timeouts, only to be met by dazed players, who seemed more infatuated with shaking their heads or pointing fingers than showing resiliency.
“I thought our guys were distracted coming out of the huddle a couple of times,” Beilein admitted.
Hardaway had the worst shooting night of his career. Burke got in foul trouble for the first time in a month. McGary, in his first career start, turned the ball over four times. Those are each correctable issues, if not isolated flukes. But even if a few of Hardaway’s 10 misses go in, or if McGary makes one or two smarter passes, it wouldn’t have been enough to mask Michigan’s mental shortcomings Tuesday.
Maybe Novak’s presence behind the bench, and not on it, magnified Michigan’s lack of toughness and void of leadership in East Lansing. But now that the Wolverines’ honeymoon period atop the college basketball world has worn off, and Michigan can’t sleepwalk its way to 20-point wins, an underlying issue is emerging.
Standing in the bowels of the Breslin Center, a despondent Jordan Morgan hinted at something more, his mumbles doing nothing to drown out the muffled sounds of music still being pumped inside the arena where the game had ended just minutes earlier.
“I hope they realize,” Morgan said, pausing to catch himself. “I hope we realize what happened today — that’s just not okay.”
Burke, too, was asked if anyone needs to question their effort.
“Uhh,” he paused. “I think that’s something the coaches will obviously look at in the film, but we win together, lose together.”
Not necessarily a glowing endorsement.
The issue with effort, or toughness, or whatever you want to call it — which Tim Hardaway Jr. said has “been going on for the last couple of games” — almost necessitated someone getting in someone’s face.
By all accounts, senior captain Josh Bartelstein is a great leader, but did anyone expect him to turn in a Novak-esque moment on Tuesday night? Hardaway and Burke, both hard workers who lead by example, probably aren’t the type to either.
And is there anyone on this year’s squad with enough guts to return to the Breslin Center in two years and smugly taunt the Izzone?
Michigan doesn’t have a tough-as-nails leader like Novak, and now it’s becoming more of a stretch to even call the Wolverines anything other than timid and soft when they’re on the road.
Michigan earned the No. 1 ranking based on its talent, now it’ll have to earn its respect back with something more than skill, talent on paper or off-the-court hype.
“We’ve got to look at ourselves and ask how much we really want it,” Morgan said. “We want to win championships, we say that everyday, but at the end of the day, we’ve got to make a commitment to do our job.
“It’s going to come down to just making a decision how good we want to be.”
Right now, they off. The Wolverines have the talent to get back ON, but do they have the toughness? That question is worth a lot more than the price of those t-shirts.
Daniel Wasserman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @d_wasserman