Nobody is perfect.
Arizona and then Duke, the teams sandwiched around No. 2 Michigan atop the national rankings last week, finally fell in last-minute thrillers over the weekend to crescendo into the Wolverines’ date with Ohio State on Sunday.
This early in the season, a win or loss means little. But for Michigan, the last unbeaten team standing, a victory over the Buckeyes would have definitively marked the Wolverines’ long-awaited return. It would have meant a No. 1 ranking for the first time since 1992. It would have put Michigan at 17-0 for the first time in program history.
It would have …
But the Wolverines hurtled back to Earth.
They fumbled and flopped out of the gate, looking very much like a team playing on the road in one of the fiercest environments in college basketball. They suffered lengthy scoring droughts in the first half and failed to register a two-point field goal until 11 minutes had ticked off the clock — and not until they had racked up eight turnovers.
The sparkplug wasn’t Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. or Glenn Robinson III. It wasn’t Nik Stauskas, Jordan Morgan or even the fiery Mitch McGary. No, it was little Spike.
Spike Albrecht, a freshman that chose Michigan over other blockbuster programs like Appalachian State, spelled Burke with the Wolverines down 21 points with six minutes remaining in the half and lit a fire under a stagnant offense.
Albrecht got to the line, twice, and added a 3-pointer. Michigan coach John Beilein couldn’t take him out, so he played Burke and Albrecht alongside each other at guard for the remainder of the half. The deficit shrunk to 12 points by halftime.
Just like that, it turned from a laugher into a game the Big Ten, college basketball’s banner conference, can be proud of.
You remember how things ended by now. Michigan clawed back to tie the game, 46-46, with six minutes remaining in regulation then crippled itself with a four-minute scoreless drought. Still, the game was within reach were it not for a crucial Buckeye offensive rebound and a Burke 3-point shot that was halfway down before it swung back around the rim and out.
Michigan lost, 56-53. No longer perfect.
In the end, it was the type of battle everyone expected between two top-20 teams. It’s just hard to win that battle when you spot the opponent a double-digit lead before you get your second basket. It’s hard to win when your 3-point specialist, Stauskas, goes cold and finishes 0-for-3 for zero points. It’s hard to win when your starting five, which averages 65.7 points per game, gives you just 40 — and when your leading scorer for much of the game is a little-used backup point guard.
And it’s darn near impossible when all that happens against your bitter rival, on the road in the toughest conference in America. But Michigan nearly pulled it out.
And that is the difference between this Michigan team and the ones of the last 15 years. This team has the talent to hang around even when the shots don’t fall. It has the coaching to recognize the weaknesses and the hot hands, the know-how to precipitate swings in momentum, the smarts to leave a hot Albrecht in. Ohio State did everything it needed to win and Michigan gave far from the effort it would have liked, but it came down to a one-possession game, far from an embarrassment.
The No. 1 ranking will have to wait. Michigan will fall a handful of spots, but it has still proven to be a top-flight program with serious staying power. It’s hard to overstate the strength of the Big Ten this season, with No. 2 Michigan, No. 5 Indiana, No. 8 Minnesota, No. 12 Illinois, No. 15 Ohio State and No. 22 Michigan State leading the way in the national rankings.
They’re going to beat up on each other. It’s already happening, just look back on the weekend. Ohio State was embarrassed by Illinois, then beat Michigan. The Fighting Illini came off their rout of the Buckeyes and were thrashed by unranked Wisconsin. Minnesota rallied from a 23-point halftime deficit to nearly sneak past Indiana.
There’s not much Michigan can do except swallow the sting of defeat and get back up for the next one — the high-flying Golden Gophers play host on Thursday.
The Wolverines weren’t going to carry the label of “undefeated” for too long. Not in this conference, not with the parity of college basketball. And that’s OK.
Nobody is perfect.
— Nesbitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.