After its worst loss, the Michigan basketball team enters the toughest stretch of its season
The Big Ten has become known as the elite conference in college basketball this season.
And starting Tuesday, the Michigan basketball team is about to find out why.
Coming off their worst defeat of the season, a 16-point loss at Iowa, the Wolverines will receive no favors over the next three weeks.
Four of Michigan's next six games will be played on the road, three of them will be major rivalry contests and one will be in unfamiliar territory.
What's worse? Four of them will be against teams presently ranked inside the top 10.
"It is what it is," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "It's a tough schedule, but it's college basketball."
A possibly season-defining gauntlet for the Wolverines will begin Tuesday in Ann Arbor, when Michigan State comes to town for the first of two meetings this season.
The Spartans should be angry enough after Michigan swept the season series against its biggest basketball rival last season for the first time in 14 years.
And just in case Michigan State needed any extra motivation (which it likely doesn't), the Spartans saw their 15-game winning streak go up in smoke Saturday by way of a seven-point loss at Northwestern.
But, hey, at least that one’s at home.
After tangling with MSU at the Crisler Center on Tuesday, Michigan will revisit its biggest nemesis this season next weekend. That, of course, is being the road.
The Wolverines make their first trip to Arkansas in 31 years on Saturday to face a Razorback team that averages nearly 80 points per game.
From there, Michigan gets two days of rest before facing Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind., a place the Wolverines haven't won in since 2003.
After Purdue, it’s Ohio State on Jan. 29 in Columbus, where Michigan has one win in its last 11 tries.
The suitcases may go away Feb. 1 when Michigan returns home for the first time in 15 days, but the challenges will remain as the Wolverines welcome in rejuvenated Indiana for their second bout of the season with the Hoosiers.
Then its back to the road and off to East Lansing on Feb. 5, ending a six-game stretch that could have Michigan looking like a serious Big Ten contender, a bust or somewhere in the middle.
"We've got to seize everything as an opportunity to grow and get better," Beilein said.
For Michigan, Beilein's advice needs to be put into effect immediately. The Wolverines couldn't have entered this dreaded swing on worse ground.
In a 75-59 loss at Iowa on Saturday, just about everything that could've gone wrong did for Michigan.
Trey Burke got into foul trouble, Tim Hardaway Jr. worsened his woeful road shooting percentage to 26.8 percent, Evan Smotrycz didn't make a shot and Jordan Morgan only took one.
If not for a 30-second stretch in the first half, the Wolverines lost wire-to-wire to a team that had been beaten by a combined 63 points over its previous two games.
Michigan's shooting woes were one thing, but its inability to defend Iowa at key moments, to compete on the glass (out-rebouned by nine) and to score in the paint (outscored 32-22) may be more alarming.
It was without question Michigan's worst performance of the season, but one the Wolverines insist they'll improve upon.
"There's a reason this is a top league in the country," Michigan senior guard Zack Novak said. "Everyone can really play.
"We'll learn from this and we'll get better."
The process of improving starts today, when Michigan will break down the Iowa film in an environment Beilein described as "not a love fest."
The biggest challenge of Michigan's season is currently staring the team in the face.
Will the Wolverines flinch? Or embrace the challenge following a poor showing in Iowa?
"I don't think we're going to get frustrated," Novak said. "We've got to turn this into hunger."
There will be plenty of chances to quench that hunger over the next 22 days. There will also be plenty of chances to starve.
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