He might not realize it, but sophomore Jevohn Shepherd’s insertion into the starting lineup was just the kickstart Michigan needed after starting the season 4-11.
The funny thing is, it had nothing to do with the eight points, five assists, four rebounds or three steals he registered on the court. Shepherd’s impact was felt before the Wolverines even arrived at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
As the team left its hotel Saturday afternoon, Shepherd’s message to his young teammates was simple.
“I mentioned it to a couple guys, ‘Don’t forget your swagger in the hotel room,’ ” Shepherd said. “And guys brought it out today.”
That extra confidence was evident from the moment Michigan took the floor in what turned into a 78-68 win over Northwestern, snapping a five-game losing streak and earning the Wolverines their first
And it’s that “swagger” that makes me believe this team is capable of more than just beating the dregs of the Big Ten, which is exactly what the Wildcats are just about every year.
In defeating Northwestern, the Wolverines finally showed the ability to knock down open shots and thoroughly dominate an opponent. Michigan’s 10-point margin of victory is misleading, considering the Wolveirnes led by 26 with less than six minutes remaining.
But unlike past games, when the team came in expecting to lose, Saturday I saw a Michigan team confident it belonged in the Big Ten. From joking around at the pregame shootaround to shooting about 57 percent from the field in the first half, it was clear this was a different group than the one that Indiana physically dominated last Tuesday.
“We came in expecting to win,” sophomore DeShawn Sims said. “That was something that was missing in the past. That attitude will be emphasized every day in practice, the winning attitude, not from the coaching staff, but from amongst us players.”
Like the saying goes: If you come in thinking you’re going to lose, you will. That’s what happened in recent weeks to Michigan.
Faced with one of the toughest schedules in the country, featuring top-10 teams like Georgetown, Duke and UCLA, the Wolverines’ confidence suffered. The resulting doubt led to losses to the few inferior teams Michigan actually played, like Harvard and Central Michigan.
Michigan coach John Beilein has spent much of the season downplaying the defeats, saying the learning process is more important to him with such a young squad. The media has bought into that. They’ve given Beilein a free pass because of all the parts that are missing with this team – specifically, quality shooters.
But I’m ready to focus on what the Wolverines do have, because thinking about what you want is just a waste of time.
With Manny Harris averaging about 17 points per game, they do have the best freshman in the Big Ten not named Eric Gordon. In Sims, who has upped his scoring by 10 points from a year ago, they do have the most improved player in the conference. And thanks to sophomore Ekpe Udoh, the Big Ten’s leading shot blocker, they do have a legitimate contender for defensive player of the year.
All three are pieces that won’t just be successful in the future – they can be successful now.
Don’t get me wrong. This team doesn’t have the bodies to compete with the conference’s upper echelon – teams like Indiana, Michigan State and Wisconsin. But there’s no reason this young group can’t score some victories over the rest of the Big Ten. They just have to realize it first.
Maybe the newfound confidence Saturday was just a product of playing Northwestern – a team that is likely to finish last in the conference. But the eternal optimist in me thinks this team has turned a corner, and it’s starting to believe in itself and in Beilein’s system.
With a winnable game at Illinois Wednesday, let’s just hope Michigan didn’t leave its swagger in Evanston.
-Giannotto has newfound respect for the Maize Rage after seeing the dismal Northwestern student section. He can be reached at email@example.com.