Tuesday, December 9, 2008

With two big upsets, expectations skyrocket for Michigan


It's amusing what two games — 80 minutes of court time — can do for a basketball program and those who follow it, or now follow it thanks to the wins.

A month ago, there was mild optimism surrounding the Michigan basketball team as it got set to kick off its second season under the watch of coach John Beilein. Coming off a 10-22 season, no one doubted that the Wolverines — with almost all their key players back — would be improved. Most, like myself, predicted a winning record and NIT berth for the team.

So much for that.

With wins over a pair of No. 4 teams, UCLA and Duke — now ranked 16th and seventh, respectively, in the latest AP poll — Michigan fans are thinking of one goal for this team. It's something that the program, astoundingly, hasn't reached since a year when Bill Clinton still had two-plus years left in his presidency and Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa were loved like cute puppies.

The year was 1998, and it was the last time the Wolverines smelled the NCAA Tournament.

Now, with Michigan sitting 6-2 and just outside of the Top 25, people in and around Ann Arbor expect big things out of this team. Just visit the Ann Arbor News' message board, where one frequent poster wrote the following:

"I am looking for a final four appearance within five years, maybe sooner."

Final Four? Let's not get ahead of ourselves. An opportunity to go Dancing would be a big, big start.

But don't bet your iPod on it. This team is much, much better than a year ago; this team has the coach and players to consistently perform like it did in Saturday's 81-73 shocker over the Blue Devils, to prove it wasn't a fluke; the two wins will undoubtedly help if Michigan is on the "bubble" come early March...

Let's just see how the Wolverines handle the newfound attention. We should get a good idea of it during the next three weeks. And I, for one, think it's a good thing the team was left out of both top-25 polls; getting at all complacent could be disastrous.

Michigan finishes the bulk of its non-conference schedule with home games against Eastern Michigan, Florida Gulf-Coast and North Carolina Central, and a neutral-court game versus Oakland. The Wolverines will be heavily favored in every game. How will they handle it?

It shouldn't be forgotten that the Wolverines needed overtime to beat Savannah State — in front of a measly crowd — a week before knocking off the Devils, which caused the sellout crowd to storm the court. Will Michigan, playing to similarly small crowds, bring the same energy against lesser opponents?

They better, because a letdown in the upcoming quartet of games would count as a "bad loss" come March.

It's not an easy stretch for 19-year-olds to concentrate during, what with final exams, the holidays and a good portion of the student body home with their families for about two weeks. At the same time, with only the four games during a 23-day period, I'm sure Beilein and his staff view it as a time to really get all the players on the same wavelength and try to set the rotation for the Big Ten schedule.

These are very happy times in and around the confines of Crisler Arena. The memory of a year ago is fading — and with it any doubts that Beilein is the right coach for the Wolverines. The man knows what he's doing. How else can you explain bringing in freshman Zack Novak, who wouldn't get a scholarship from many Division I teams?

And, yep, Novak drilled four 3-pointers, including the two biggest shots of the game, against Duke.

Beilein might not rake in top-10 national recruits, but he'll definitely continue to reel in players who fit his system. And anyone who has followed his career path knows that his system works against the best competition.

So is the program going to continue to get better?

Undoubtedly, as long as Beilein sticks around.

But is this team headed to the NCAA Tournament?

My mind tells me "yes" at the moment, but there remain many more games — some of them very difficult, some of them looking like even matchups, some with the appearance of games this team should win.

If the young Wolverines take care of those "should-win" games and win a few of the even matchups, they'll find themselves back, finally, in the only college-basketball tournament that matters. If they have more lapses, like the five-minute one that lost the game for them at Maryland Wednesday, they may have to settle for that prognosticated NIT berth.

Either way, things are looking up — way up — for Beilein and his kids. The win over Duke was the grandest since an upset of then-No. 1 Duke in 1997.

Just don't think, all of a sudden, that anything is guaranteed for this team. The survival against Savannah State should make that very clear.

The Wolverines earned their wins over UCLA and Duke by playing hard and composed for most of 40 minutes.

They'll have to continue to do the same to continue winning and not put a damper on these highly increased expectations.


OldEnglish said...

Were the Cameron Crazies all beside themselves after this loss? I only saw the last three minutes, but it was a nice feeling. LIke you said, cautious optimism.

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