INDIANAPOLIS – Michigan coach John Beilein had a sly grin on his face as he gave his final pregame instructions yesterday – as if he knew something the fans in the crowd didn’t.

It’s been a well-kept secret, but the truth is emerging.

The Michigan men’s basketball team has talent.

The Wolverines may not be the most talented team in the conference, but they have much more skill than they’ve gotten credit for. Numerous ill-advised shots and a scoring drought of more than 10 minutes against Iowa show Michigan still has much to learn about Beilein’s offense. But the game was never in doubt after the first 10 minutes.

The Wolverines have enough talent to make mistakes and still win, as long as they put out maximum effort.

Good defense, more than good offense, depends on effort and hustle. Sophomore center Ekpe Udoh freely admits those elements were lacking earlier in the year.

But Michigan’s dominant defense yesterday, which held Iowa without a field goal for more than 16 minutes, was a key to the win when the offense failed.

The victory wasn’t pretty to most observers, but I saw the Wolverines play a nearly perfect game – nearly perfect because their approach to it was nearly perfect.

For the last few weeks, the players have talked about the Big Ten Tournament. And Beilein has talked about the tournament to the media just as much.

I’ve never seen a team successfully veer from the one-game-at-a-time approach so much. But it worked yesterday. Michigan badly wants to prove it can compete with anybody. The team wasn’t going to allow itself to lose yesterday. Conseco Fieldhouse is the Wolverines’ stage, and they’ve been planning the performance for weeks.

But why couldn’t Michigan put on a show at Crisler Arena or the Bryce Jordan Center? Michigan wasted the last two weeks of the season. Sure, the Wolverines made some progress, but not nearly as much as they could’ve.

For the most part, that’s been the story of this season. The Wolverines have learned Beilein’s sets, but they haven’t learned how to approach games with a winning attitude, which is much more important.

I don’t know what will come from this semi-wasted season. Beilein said he has treated this season like his first year at every other college where he has coached, except Richmond, where he said he focused more on winning.

Beilein’s winning percentage in his first year coaching a school: .558.

Take out Richmond: .525.

His winning percentage after his inaugural year on a job: .642.

So even if his first-year strategy is flawed, it’s hard not to give him the benefit of doubt that he will turn the Wolverines around.

This tournament gives Michigan the perfect chance to work on its mental strength.

“We just wanted to win,” sophomore forward DeShawn Sims said. “Whoever was in our way, we are trying to advance and go to the promised land. Whoever is in our way, we just have to play with that chip on our shoulders.”

Michigan plays regular-season conference champion Wisconsin at noon. Take that attitude and a win is possible.

Take that attitude into each game next year and an NCAA Tournament berth might not be the pipe dream it is for this year’s squad.

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