Even as the preseason No. 15 ranking dropped off and the early-season losses piled up, the Michigan men’s basketball team still faced heightened expectations. Game after game, fans and media members assumed that the Wolverines would win.

A loss to Marquette? Alabama? “It’s just a fluke” — the refrain echoed around Ann Arbor. And even heading into Utah last week with an unimpressive 4-3 record, Michigan was “supposed to” win.

Each time the Wolverines faced these expectations against a solid opponent, they faltered.

On Saturday, Michigan (5-4) heads to Lawrence, Kansas. The Wolverines will take on the No. 1 team in the nation in one of college basketball’s most historic venues, Allen Fieldhouse.

For the first time all season, Michigan is expected to lose.

But that also means the Wolverines have no fear of a letdown, essentially a nothing-to-lose attitude. And that mentality brings them back to where they were last year, when they came out of nowhere to upset top-5 teams like Duke and UCLA.

“That’s kind of our identity as a team,” sophomore guard Zack Novak said Wednesday. “Last year, that’s what we were all year — we were kind of that team that’s going to shock everybody. I think going into a game like this, it kind of fits our persona and I think it’ll be good for us. We’ll be ready.”

The Wolverines are 1-3 this season when they trail at halftime (the one win being Sunday’s comeback victory over Detroit), so a fast start could make the difference. First-half play has not been pretty, with cold shooting and poor interior defense — even in the games in which Michigan has led at the half.

While Michigan coach John Beilein has stressed repeatedly that low field goal and 3-point shooting percentages can only be fixed by taking more shots, it seems Beilein has stepped in to solve the defensive woes.

This week in practice, he has taken his players back to the fundamentals.

“A lot of just basic man-to-man defense, a lot of boxing out,” Beilein said. “We put the bubbles back on the baskets.

“We have two or three guys continually doing a good job, and then it’s different ones every time, but it’s one breakdown,” he said. “We’re really trying to expose ourselves so we can have no breakdown in a box out, no breakdown in a defensive stance.”

Beilein said his team has devoted more time to defense early this week than any other time this season. That defense will have its work cut out for it.

Kansas senior guard Sherron Collins and 6-foot-11 center Cole Aldrich, both All-Big 12 selections last season, have been wreaking havoc on defenses all year.

“You’ve got the great combination of the inside-outside threats,” Beilein said. “You’ve got Collins who, by himself, can win a game. Throw Aldrich inside, and he’s just a mountain with really long arms.”

Perhaps most worrisome for the Wolverines, however, is the fact that Collins and Aldrich aren’t the only major scoring threats on the talented Jayhawk squad.

“When you play these type of teams that have two or three really high-level guys on that team, many times it’s the other guys that end up beating you,” Beilein said. “They’re just filling in those spots. They’re rebounding. They guard. They have assigned tasks that make them very difficult to stop.”

Kansas’s star power and balanced scoring attack are key factors in the team’s scoring average of 93 points per game (including exhibitions). To compare, Michigan has scored over 90 points just once — its season-opening win over Northern Michigan.

Still, no matter how uneven Michigan and Kansas (9-0) appear on paper, or how intimidating the Collins-Aldrich duo seems, the Wolverines are optimistic.

And with the burden of high expectations resting solely on the Jayhawks’ shoulders now, the Wolverines truly feel like they have nothing to lose.

“You don’t get too many opportunities to play the No. 1 team in the country,” Novak said. “We need to go in there and make the most of it.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.