On Dec. 8, a .500 winning percentage seemed about as far away as the sunny beaches of Los Angeles to the Michigan basketball team. But in the month since their 22-point loss to Duke, the Wolverines have seen both a record above .500 and the cool waters of the Pacific.
Michigan started the season 0-6 as poor post defense was exposed by opposing centers, while the Wolverines were not playing within the system that the coaches had established for them. But on the last day of the fall semester, Michigan turned the trend around by avenging last year’s loss to Bowling Green with an 83-57 win. The Wolverines carried that momentum throughout break, capturing an 81-76 win at UCLA and finishing their vacation with an 84-79 victory over IUPUI on Saturday.
Michigan (7-6) hasn’t looked back since the win over Bowling Green, piling up wins like snow on the ground. It has done so by playing unselfishly on the offensive end, leading to an increase in confidence for a team that is not used to prolonged success. Over this stretch, Michigan also learned how to deal with adversity and overcome problems – things that it had previously failed to do.
The Wolverines had to do both on Saturday against IUPUI to bring their winning streak to seven – giving them a perfect record over winter break and their longest winning streak since the 1997-98 season.
The Jaguars gave up an early nine-point lead to the Wolverines but would come back and pester a lackluster Michigan team all day. IUPUI led by four with less than 10 minutes remaining and tied the game with less than four minutes to go before a baseline dunk by Michigan forward Lester Abram put the game out of reach.
“This is the time of year that you look around college basketball and you see a lot of teams slip up. We were fortunate that we weren’t one of those teams (Saturday),” Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said. “This very well could have been a game that last year or a couple of years ago that maybe we would not have been able to pull out.”
Michigan was dealt a blow before the game when junior Bernard Robinson was scratched due to a knee injury suffered during practice. Compounding this problem was foul trouble for Abram that kept him on the bench for a six-minute stretch late in the second half. Abram finished the game with five rebounds and a career-high 20 points, but his absence clearly affected Michigan’s offense.
“I liked seeing the good offensive performance (from him), but he was picking up silly and immature fouls that put him on the bench,” Amaker said. “Especially in a game like this where we didn’t have Robinson – we really need Abram.”
Missing the duo also weakened Michigan’s perimeter defense, allowing the Jaguars to penetrate the Wolverines’ frail zone defense. Michigan also had problems rotating on defense and getting to the weak side to help teammates take players off the dribble, allowing IUPUI to easily slash to the basket. The Wolverines gave up 36 points in the paint as the Jaguars went 18-of-24 inside.
“I was disappointed in our ability to guard their perimeter players off the dribble,” Amaker said. “They exploited us in the post and off the dribble. They had an attacking game plan – even their zone defense was aggressive and active.”
Michigan does not have much time to correct these problems, as it will begin its Big Ten season on Wednesday at home against Wisconsin. But this winning streak has instilled confidence in the Wolverines and has them thinking optimistically about upcoming conference play.
“We are believing in what coach Amaker is doing and what he is teaching,” said Daniel Horton, who had a career high nine assists Saturday. “It feels like a much different team. We are now playing with much more intensity and playing harder on both ends of the court while being more unselfish.”