Friday, February 20, 2009

Wolverines overcome first mental hurdle, but now it gets harder


One down, a few more to go.

That's where the Michigan basketball team stands after a solid 74-62 home victory over Minnesota Thursday night.

It was a win the Wolverines had to have, a game they couldn't let slip through the cracks if they want to sneak into their first NCAA Tournament since 1998. And, sure enough, once they got hold of the lead in the early going, they never relinquished it and cruised to the easy victory.

But there remains plenty of work to be done. Sitting at 17-10 and 7-7 in the Big Ten, Michigan probably needs to win two, if not three, of its final four regular-season games plus a game or two in the Big Ten tournament to go dance in mid-March.

That doesn't seem like too big of a task except for this: three of Michigan's final four games are on the road. For a young team that hasn't tasted much success, that's the ultimate challenge.

The Wolverines are just 2-6 on opponents' homecourts, with the wins coming over mediocre Northwestern in overtime and lowly Indiana thanks to a last-minute comeback.

For Michigan, it's a mental thing. The Wolverines have to know, have to believe, that they can play well on the road and match up with anybody. Because they certainly have the talent and ability to compete well in any team's gym.

How else can one explain their spirited effort at No. 1 Connecticut a couple weekends ago? In that game, Michigan led at halftime before falling by eight points. The Wolverines showed, for most of the game, what they're capable of.

But as Manny Harris noted afterward, it was still a loss. No matter how good an "L" is, it doesn't help a team's NCAA Tournament resume.

Wins are all that count, and these next couple weeks will show just how well the young Wolverines have grown up. Can they not only play a good 20 minutes in a hostile environment, but a full 40 minutes? That, usually, is the difference between NIT and NCAA teams.

If they do, then they certainly could upset Wisconsin and Minnesota away from home — their final two games. A victory in either of those contests would do wonders for this team.

But before traveling to Madison and Minneapolis, Michigan must travel to Iowa City on Sunday and then host Purdue. Both are winnable games. The Hawkeyes are, to put it bluntly, horrible. They're 3-10 in the conference and I can't name a single player on their roster.

That, of course, is why they're scary: They have absolutely nothing to lose and will relish playing the spoiler role. An experienced team, a team used to playing deep into March, wouldn't give Iowa life in such a game. It'd extinguish the Hawkeyes' energy in the early going.

That's the mindset Michigan needs on Sunday. It needs to play with the same vim and vigor it displayed against the Gophers in Ann Arbor.

We know that'll be on display on Senior Night against a ranked Boilermakers squad, but none of that will matter if Michigan is coming off a bad loss in Iowa.

With one win at a time, the Wolverines can attain their dream: They can play in the Big Dance.

Most prognosticators, including this one, said that goal would be realized next season with a more mature group.

The next couple weeks will show just how quickly (or not) this cadre of players has matured, and it will indicate whether they've developed the killer instinct necessary to win the tough road games.

The signs inside Crisler Arena Thursday night were all good.

But what will transpire away from the friendly confines?

It's time to find out — one last time — just how ready to dance this group of Wolverines is.

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