As the proverbial dust settled from Michigan’s 68-59 loss to Wisconsin in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament in Chicago, Glenn Robinson III didn’t know what to expect.
For starters, the freshman never had been in that situation before — getting bounced from a late-season tournament — just like his teammates Nik Stauskas and Mitch McGary, two other first-year players who have had a big impact for Michigan.
They had played poorly; they knew that. Now would their coach come in and blow a gasket?
Not this time. Instead, John Beilein — who has coached some dynamic freshmen in the past couple of years and apparently learned all the strategies for doing so — entered the sullen locker room and announced the season wasn’t over.
“Everybody came in here really mad,” Robinson said of the locker room after Michigan struggled in the second half against Wisconsin. “I didn’t know how it was going to go. I didn’t know if he was going to go off on us or something. But I think Coach does a great job of giving those speeches when we need them, and I think [that day] was definitely a time that we needed it.”
The truth is, while Michigan was briefly ranked No. 1 in the nation earlier this year, the fourth-seeded Wolverines are still a young team as they head into the NCAA tournament, where they will face former St. Cloud Tech standout Nate Wolters and South Dakota State in their South Regional opener Thursday in Auburn Hills, Mich.
As such, they’ve gone through ups and downs, shown flaws and had the tendency to get “down on ourselves,” as Robinson put it.
When the Wolverines don’t shoot well from the outside, they struggle, and their defense — never the squad’s biggest strength — has been flimsier than ever in the past couple of weeks. Robinson said sometimes the team is so focused on getting out and running that they don’t finish possessions. It’s all part of the growing pains that come with a youthful bunch.
“We’ve just really got to grow defensively,” Beilein said. “All it takes … is one breakdown here or there and they’re [the opponent] scoring points.”
As important as anything will be the opportunity for the developing squad — which plays five true freshmen and a redshirt freshman, along with a pair of sophomores — to get away from Big Ten competition, a rugged schedule for every team. Similar to the Gophers, Michigan has struggled with slow starts, which the Wolverines often have been able to overcome because of elite talent, but which also have been the early nail in the coffin in several games.
After starting 20-1 overall and 7-1 in the Big Ten, Michigan lost six of its last 12 overall and four of its last five regular-season road games, including a defeat at Penn State, which had gone 0-14 in the league up until that point.
“I think that is something we’re continuing to get better at — just coming out with a lot of intensity,” said Big Ten Player of the Year Trey Burke of the slow starts by Michigan, which led Penn State by only two points at halftime in the first round of the Big Ten tournament before winning 83-66.
Can the Wolverines get it together in time for a no-nonsense matchup with the Jackrabbits? When the tournament bracket came out, they were quickly tabbed a trendy pick to make a run. But even if Michigan makes it past South Dakota State, it would likely get a brutal head-to-head meeting with Virginia Commonwealth immediately afterward.
Right now that talk, along with the recent shortcomings, is only fueling the fire for players and a coach that knows his successful but young team sometimes needs a different kind of prodding.
“I know it’s hard for a coach to keep his composure and talk to the team in that certain way, but that’s what we needed,” Robinson said. “I think he did a great job of showing us that we can still do things this season. That it’s not over, not even close.”