MADISON — After the game last night in Madison, I found myself double-checking that the maize jerseys were Michigan, and the white ones were Wisconsin.
The Wolverines were the ones taking advantage of their opponent’s missed shots. They were the ones grabbing rebounds. They were the ones playing suffocating defense and jumping out to an early lead.
See, usually, it’s the other way around.
And if Wisconsin was Michigan, the Badgers would have gotten down on themselves after falling behind, let their offense affect their defense, and they would have lost.
But Wisconsin wasn’t Michigan. Wisconsin was Wisconsin, and the Badgers played the final eight minutes of the game as if they told themselves — “Dammit, we’re Wisconsin!”
The Badgers woke up after a 3-pointer by Rob Wilson and from there, they imposed their will on the Wolverines. They decided that, since they were having a bad shooting night, they would take it to the post, which they did with alarming success.
By the 4:04 mark, after two Badger layups and a tip-in, Wisconsin had tied the game, and Michigan had lost all momentum. The Wolverines became timid and settled for outside jumpers instead of going to the post, which had been working all game.
That’s the difference between teams like Wisconsin, which doesn’t lose many Big Ten games at home, and teams like Michigan, which has already lost one to Northwestern.
While Wisconsin was never rattled by its bricks and failed opportunities last night, Michigan has been many times this season, often letting its offensive struggles get in the way of how it plays defense. That problem is all in the players’ heads, and even though Michigan shot the ball better than Wisconsin last night, its lack of mental toughness came through in the last five or so minutes of the game, when the Wolverines went ice cold.
I still think there are good things to take away from this loss. The Kohl Center is one of the toughest places to play in the country, and Michigan led for most of the game. Senior DeShawn Sims had a great game, going for 23 points and 13 boards. These aspects of yesterday’s loss are both very encouraging.
But, as freshman point guard Darius Morris said after the game, moral victories went out the window a long time ago.
How do the Wolverines get their heads right? I don’t know. But here’s how I would approach every remaining game if I were coach John Beilein, with the season’s fate all but sealed. (Hint: it’s not ending with an NCAA Tournament berth.)
Forget about the Tourney, forget about the fans who thought you’d be better, forget about everything that has happened up to this point in the season. Hire a brainwashing team shrink if you have to. Just go out and play basketball. Basketball is supposed to be fun, but it has to become a chore when you’re laboring under the weight of failed expectations and a disappointed fanbase.
Sure, this is easier said than done, and I don’t know how these players’ minds work. But here’s what I do know: even though this season probably won’t lead to an NCAA Tournament berth, good things can still come from it if the players can find a way to forget about everything that’s happened so far.
So to all of the Wolverines: Don’t listen to the pundits, the writers or anyone else who would talk about the disappointment this year, for the rest of the season, if you have at all.
Just go out on the court and play.