LAWRENCE, Kan — It wasn’t a win. It wasn’t even a close loss. The outcome of the game was never even really in doubt.
But as strange as it sounds, Michigan’s loss to No. 1-ranked Kansas at Allen Field House on Saturday could provide the Wolverines with the boost of confidence they need heading into the Big Ten season.
Sophomore Zack Novak summed up the feeling nicely: “We didn’t make shots and we lost to Kansas, at Kansas, by 11.”
What does that mean? It means if they had shot 40 percent, 30 percent, or maybe even 25 percent instead of an abysmal 17 percent from the 3-point line, it would have been an entirely different game. And according to freshman point guard Darius Morris, that is something to take solace in.
“Coach (Beilein) was proud of the effort, but at the end of the day it’s still a loss,” he said. “But we can be positive about this because we missed a lot of open ones. And if those shots fall, maybe the outcome would have been different.”
Michigan played well enough to win in every aspect of the game teams can control, particularly when it came to defense and rebounding. After the Wolverines got down by 20 in the first half, they climbed their way back into the game with their defense, going on an 11-4 run to cut the Kansas lead to 11 at halftime. Their defense was outstanding the rest of the game, notching 10 steals and allowing them to stay within 11 until the very end despite going 2-15 from beyond the arc in the second half. Beilein said it was the best defense his team has played all year.
Seniors DeShawn Sims and Zack Gibson held preseason AP All-American center Cole Aldrich to five points and zero field goals. And Michigan, despite its lack of size, was only outrebounded by three and grabbed seven more offensive rebounds than Kansas.
“Everybody’s got a lot of talent,” Beilein said. “And (this game) certainly shows us that with a little more poise in the first half and with a little bit of good bounces with the ball going in, we can hang with those teams on the road.”
The reason this game was so encouraging despite being a semi-ugly loss? This year, it hasn’t just been the shooting. It’s been the interior defense and rebounding, too. The losses haven’t piled up early this season just because Michigan hasn’t been able to shoot. And while Michigan fans wait for the Wolverines to heat up, it’s a relief to see them finally picking it up in other aspects of their games.
“I mean, a loss is a loss, but it’s still valuable to know we can play with anybody,” junior Manny Harris said. “And once the shots start falling it can be a whole different outcome.”
However, at 5-5, Michigan’s chances of making the NCAA tournament are fading with every loss. It may seem like Michigan is already out. But here’s what people often forget: at one point last year, Michigan lost seven out of nine Big Ten games. In fact, nearly all of the Wolverines’ signature victories came in the infancy of the season.
The argument could be made that this team is simply going through its slump at the beginning of the season instead of the end. College basketball teams look a lot different from December to February. Remember — Michigan went from a team that came close to losing to Savannah State to advancing to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
And if this game is any indication, Michigan has a lot left to show the selection committee before season’s end. With the strength of the Big Ten is this year, there are plenty of chances for signature wins later in the season.
The Wolverines aren’t out yet. But they are running out of time. If they play their Big Ten games the way they played against Kansas on Saturday, they’ll be able to win enough games against good enough teams to make the tournament. That’s if they play with the same intensity on defense and on the boards that they showed in Lawrence.
Oh, and they need to shoot. They definitely need to shoot.
— Stapleton can be reached at email@example.com.