ANN ARBOR — On Saturday night, Michigan could very well be .500 in the Big Ten and riding a two-game losing streak.
To dismiss the Wolverines as being in the midst of a down year, however, wouldn’t be wise. John Beilein and Co. were one controversial call away from perhaps beating the No. 5 team in the country Tuesday.
“I really was convinced that we had a play set up that we were going to win the game. All of the sudden, they’re winning the game,” the Michigan coach said, following a 70-69 loss to visiting Purdue.
Michigan already has wins over UCLA, Texas, VCU, and Indiana. A third conference loss Saturday at No. 4 Michigan State would mean UM lost to arguably the three best teams — MSU, Purdue, and Ohio State — in the Big Ten.
There were moments in November that looked dire. Losses to LSU and North Carolina revealed major deficiencies, and a blown 20-point lead against the Buckeyes in early December only added to the uncertainty.
But an ensuing seven-game win streak, coupled with the comeback against Purdue, signaled a similar progression under Beilein — Michigan often gets better as the season grows longer.
“I’m not glad we lost early in the season, but they’ve been big for us,” said freshman forward Isaiah Livers, noting the rapid improvement in recent weeks.
Livers, Zavier Simpson, and Jordan Poole, once names on the roster, have developed into contributors. Charles Matthews, Moritz Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, and Duncan Robinson can all provide instant offense. And the veteran quartet is mindful of how to create success.
There’s no win that can stir the emotions of Michigan basketball more so than a road victory in the Breslin Center over Michigan State. Despite Tuesday’s loss to the Boilermakers, Michigan enters East Lansing as a confident bunch.
“I think we’re a really good team,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “We made mistakes down the stretch [against Purdue], and we just have to continue to grow.”
The two rivals play once this season. The Spartans won the first meeting in East Lansing last year before Michigan trounced them by 29 points in the rematch. It’s a game that has not been forgotten by Michigan State.
“Our guys aren’t feeling great about what happened down there last year, but we’re not living in last year anymore,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I did that enough early in my career. We’re living in the moment, and in the moment, we’re 16-2 and it’s an important conference game for our chances to be on top of the conference.”
During Beilein’s 11-year stint at Michigan, his teams often win because of offenses that draw envy from coaches across the country. So far this season, it’s defense that Michigan’s turned into a valuable commodity. The Wolverines rank 14th nationally in scoring defense.
“I can’t put my finger on it, but I hope we have that ‘it’ where we can just stay in games even when we’re overmatched with experience,” Beilein said.
The evidence thus far indicates the “it” factor Beilein references is pumping through UM’s veins. Michigan was far from perfect Tuesday. At times, put simply, the Wolverines looked like a bad basketball team. But even on an off night, Michigan came within overtime — or 6.2 seconds — of beating a top-five team.
It’s something to ponder if this team falls to .500 in the Big Ten.
“The moment’s not too big,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “It’s encouraging to have people who are ready to make a play when needed.”
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