Narrow win a lesson for young Michigan basketball team heading into tough Maui Invitational
Jeff Sainlar I AnnArbor.com
If the Michigan basketball team was looking for a splash of cold water in its face, it got it Thursday, courtesy of Western Illinois.
The 17th-ranked Wolverines have shown struggles in each of their four tests this season, if you count an exhibition win over Wayne State.
But on Thursday, Michigan found the task of getting out of its own way to be difficult for a full 40 minutes. A lesson the youthful group hopes it learns from before opening the 2011 Maui Invitational on Monday against No. 10 Memphis.
"We needed a game like that to kind of wake us up a little bit," Michigan sophomore forward Jordan Morgan said of the team's 59-55 win over the Leathernecks. "But not just to wake us up, but get us used to playing in situations where we have to knock down free throws late and get key stops and key baskets.
"We needed to feel that pressure when the lights were on."
In an eight-point exhibition win over Wayne State, Michigan led by as many as 14 points in the first half, seizing control of the game before eventually allowing the lesser opponent to creep close toward the end.
But against Western Illinois, the game was in doubt from wire-to-wire. Michigan never led by more than nine, and for the first time this season found itself in a situation where it had to make plays in crunch time.
"We've had some suspense in the second half," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "We'll have to learn from it and get better, that's part of this thing."
Beilein cautioned all to remember just how young his group is when judging their early play. Michigan started a freshman, three sophomores and a senior Thursday.
Young or not, the Wolverines know they'll need to figure out their issues in a hurry, or Michigan's trip to Maui might end up a bust.
After facing a top 10 team in Memphis, Michigan will either play Tennessee or Duke on Tuesday. From there, the other side of the bracket includes Kansas and Georgetown.
All considerably bigger tests than the Wolverines have welcomed into Crisler Arena so far this season.
Rather than focusing on the negatives from Thursday, though, Beilein's bunch seemed content on taking away whatever good it could grasp from the narrow victory.
"We just need to stay poised when things don't go right. Sometimes we get down on each other when things don't go right, but tonight we did a great job in the second half of staying together as a team," Michigan freshman guard Trey Burke said. "I think it brought us closer. Someone would make a turnover, I'd do something wrong and someone would yell at me.
"But during a timeout, they'd pick me back up. We did that well tonight."
It may be too early for negativity. Michigan's still undefeated and the season's just three games old.
But Maui won't be nearly as forgiving, and inconsistent play could make it much more difficult to find the silver lining in lackluster performances.
"We're going to learn a lot about them," Beilein said of Maui. "It's going to be very difficult.