After an emotionally draining win like Michigan had over Wisconsin last week, coaches always worry about a letdown. It’s something that is extremely common in all sports, but also something that can kill a team’s momentum – especially if it falls to a weaker opponent.
The Wolverines played hard enough to defeat Penn State on Saturday. They avoided a costly letdown. On the bright side, Michigan succeeded in its first opportunity to show it could get a win after an emotional and dramatic victory. The Wolverines responded well to success, and this is a positive sign for the current season, as well as the future.
On the other hand, the energy, passion and concentration that brought them back from a 15-point deficit against the Badgers was nowhere to be found. Michigan was tired, and it showed on the court.
Of course, there’s no reason why the Wolverines shouldn’t be tired. Freshman point guard Daniel Horton has been logging almost 40 minutes per game throughout the nine-game winning streak. He has done a remarkable job of running the team, but the playing time is taking a toll on his energy and health.
Michigan as a whole is dressing just 10 players, three of which (Sherrod Harrell, Chuck Bailey and Colin Dill) play limited minutes (10 combined against Penn State). So who can blame the seven primary players from feeling a little weary from time to time?
But even though getting tired may be understandable, it certainly won’t get the Wolverines far in the Big Ten. As the season continues, conference opponents will only get bigger, stronger and meaner.
Michigan must learn how to deal with the mental and physical rigors of conference play if it wants to continue its impressive winning streak and have a successful conference season.
Saturday, the Wolverines did a poor job of this, but were able to get away with it. For the first time during the winning streak, the Wolverines were outrebounded (42-35). They also allowed Penn State to grab 22 offensive rebounds to their seven. They shot just 68 percent from the charity stripe, where they ended up with a 37-8 shot advantage. And finally, they committed 11 second-half fouls after just three in the first half. These numbers are all indicative of a team with a lack of concentration.
Fortunately for the Wolverines, Penn State committed even more fouls and turnovers than they did, giving them a chance to maintain the lead. The Nittany Lions also shot just 31.4 percent from the field for the game.
But Penn State’s performance was a poor representation of the competition level Michigan will face in the Big Ten this year. Wednesday at Ohio State, the Wolverines might face their biggest challenge yet and no matter how tired they might be, they need to be ready.
Through this amazing turnaround, Michigan has built up a great deal of confidence. The Wolverines believe in themselves, each other and coach Tommy Amaker. It’s almost impossible to believe that a team that began the season with six consecutive losses could ever be feeling overconfident, so I don’t think that was the problem Saturday.
Michigan began the Big Ten season with two consecutive wins last year, but without the talent to compete in the Big Ten it was eventually pushed near the bottom of the standings. This season, the talent is there, and Michigan has the potential to put together an impressive conference season. But will the streak continue?
“You have to play extremely well in this conference,” Amaker said. “It’s hard to win on the road in this league. It’s certainly a very difficult task. We have to be rested, healthy and prepared, and we have to play well in order to get a victory (at Ohio State).”
Concentration is fragile. It can be broken very quickly and easily – especially on the road. Michigan must find a way to set aside its fatigue and play with focus and concentration all the time. If the Wolverines can do this, they will move one step closer to becoming a force in the Big Ten.
Naweed Sikora can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.