It was a subtle difference from games past.

Week in and week out, Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein and his players would toss around cliches like “It’s a tough stretch coming up” or “We’ve got a young team that needs experience.”

After Sunday’s unexpected and exhilarating 68-63 upset of No. 15 Connecticut, that language finally changed.

Michigan’s next three games are against three of the Big Ten’s highest-ranked teams: Wisconsin, Purdue and Michigan State — with the first two coming on the road. Star guard Manny Harris didn’t seem too worried, calling the upcoming slate of games a “great” stretch, while sophomore Zack Novak spoke at length about the on-court maturity he’s seeing. Novak chose words like “improvement” and “growth” for a reason.

The Michigan basketball team has finally learned how to play a full 40-minute game — and now, how to win one, too.

“Right now, I think we’re playing good basketball,” Novak said. “We’re improving every game, and I think people see that. We still have room to improve, but this is a huge win for us.”

Novak is right, of course. There are areas for improvement everywhere — from boosting their 3-point shooting percentage to staying out of foul trouble. But what’s incredible to consider first is how far the Wolverines have already come.

Start with defense. Michigan’s win over Connecticut featured some of the scrappiest, most smothering defense it has played all season. According to Harris, that was the blueprint for success heading into Sunday’s game against a taller and more physical team.

“No matter how many shots we miss, just match them on the defensive end when we go down there, box out, just play harder than them,” said Harris of the team’s strategy. “Get the 50-50 balls, and we got a good chance of winning the game, and that’s what we did today.”

And it seemed like each time the Huskies got into a bit of a rhythm, or had a huge defensive stop, the momentum would shift back to the Wolverines — be it by a Zack Gibson block, a Novak steal or a Stu Douglass 3-pointer.

Rest assured, that hasn’t been happening all season.

At the same time, the “young” team grew up. Freshman guard Darius Morris said after Thursday’s win over Indiana that the college game was finally slowing down for him. He and Douglass have been getting more and more comfortable leading this team down the court. And the role players finally figured out, well, their respective roles.

“We realized what we were doing at the beginning of the season wasn’t working,” Douglass said. “The third or fourth option, sometimes you have to look at that instead of forcing the first or second option to Manny or (DeShawn Sims). … We were just playing off the offense instead of trying to create our own.”

We’ve seen this epiphany in action, too. Instead of standing around passively as Harris or Sims struggled, the rest of the team made that extra pass to find the open shot. In Sunday’s win over Connecticut, five players scored at least eight points for the first time since the season-opening win over Northern Michigan on Nov. 14.

More players have contributed on offense and re-dedicated themselves to defense, and it makes sense that the team’s overall focus has narrowed. In the past two games, I’ve seen that look in the players’ eyes. They have been hungry. They have been focused. They are back in “hunter” mode for the first time since last season.

The final step of that growth came in Sunday’s final minutes, when, instead of collapsing down the stretch like they would have earlier this season, the Wolverines won the tug-of-war with a defiant Connecticut squad.

When the Huskies tied and re-tied the game with less than four minutes remaining in the game, the Wolverines didn’t buckle as they have in games past. They withstood the late-game rush, played smart on offense and tough on defense. In short, they listened to their coach, and they grew up in a big moment.

“The bottom line is, get to the point where in the last five-to-ten minutes, we know how to win,” Beilein said Friday. “You’re going to win it with really smart offensive play and with just tough defense and rebounding.”

Sunday’s victory over Connecticut was more than just a signature win. By beating the Huskies, Michigan has shown it has the talent to compete with anyone and the poise down the stretch to beat them, too.

“It gives us a lot of confidence and also lets us know we are just as athletic as they are or even if we’re not, we can play stronger or tougher than the next team,” Harris said.

That’s why the Wisconsin-Purdue-Michigan State stretch doesn’t seem so scary anymore, even for a team that’s been so hard to figure out. The Wolverines don’t enter it as a disjointed group of players; they come into it as a team that’s been through some growing pains. But it’s also a team that’s looking at a glass half-full. (And who’s to tell these guys they can’t dream about the NCAA Tournament?)

“We’ve got opportunities,” Novak said. “If we just keep getting better and playing well, good things will happen.”

— Auerbach can be reached at

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