ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Already this season Michigan has been overrated and overlooked, ranked, unranked and rebuilding.
But right now the Wolverines seem to be coming into their own as a team.
In the span of five days John Beilein’s crew took down then-No. 3 Wisconsin 77-70 on the road and No. 10 Iowa at home on Wednesday night, 75-67. On Saturday, the Wolverines will travel to East Lansing, Mich., for a shot at No. 3 Michigan State and a hat trick of sorts.
Even a few weeks ago, this eight-day stretch of Bo Ryan, Fran McCaffrey and Tom Izzo seemed like a death trap for the Wolverines, who were struggling to play well on the road, find their roles and find their confidence.
But all of those factors have come together for a Michigan group that had a lot of offense and defense to replace after losing Wooden Award winner Trey Burke and NBA draft pick Tim Hardaway Jr. Those losses were tough to stomach, but on top of that, Mitch McGary's loss to injury earlier this season seemed like the nail in the coffin for a team that had already dropped a few games and was out of the rankings.
“We had some tough losses and people were starting to get nervous,” sophomore point guard Spike Albrecht said. “But that’s what you learn from and that’s how you grow.”
And that has become the identity of this team -- a group that has actually examined itself, individually and as a team, learned from its mistakes and corrected those.
Beilein pointed to the Arizona loss and mentioned how he had been worried that Michigan could be outrebounded by Iowa just as Arizona outrebounded Michigan 37-24. But the Wolverines learned from their mistake and against a Hawkeyes team that posts a plus-9 rebounding margin, Michigan held its own and narrowly lost the battle 33-32.
And then there’s the fact that the Wolverines have been a team that hasn’t closed out games well. In their loss to Iowa State, they led until the 6:39 mark, then never again. Against Arizona, they held a three-point lead with three minutes to go and a one-point lead with 25 seconds remaining.
They didn’t -- or couldn’t -- close out.
But history didn’t repeat itself on Wednesday.
Iowa’s Aaron White attempted a one-man comeback, cutting Michigan’s lead to just four with a minute remaining. But the Wolverines made smart, well-timed fouls, got out in transition and converted from the free throw line.
“People are definitely settling into their roles and we’re playing a lot better down the stretch,” Albrecht said. “That’s kind of what was getting us in the early-on games. Some of those tough losses we had earlier were kind of heartbreakers, but they help you down the stretch and that’s what’s happening right now for us.”
And after having lost at Duke and Iowa State, having heard opposing fans scream obscenities, the Wolverines blocked that out on Saturday to pick up a win at the Kohl Center, and then at home, when they needed to keep their composure and play like they do in open gym, that’s what a very loud, very packed Crisler Center felt like to them.
And with the way each Wolverine played, it was hard to imagine they felt like they were playing anywhere other than their driveway or an empty gym.
Sophomore guard Nik Stauskas exploded for a career-high 26 points, hitting four 3-pointers. Albrecht, who started in place of freshman Derrick Walton Jr., who missed Tuesday’s practice with the flu, finished with seven assists and no turnovers. Glenn Robinson III finished with 14 points -- including some hustle plays and alley oops that reinvigorated the Wolverines -- and a team-high nine rebounds. Center Jordan Morgan finished with 12 points, 7 rebounds and 1 block. He has been a more than viable option for the Wolverines both offensively and defensively and has been one of the bigger surprises to emerge after the loss of McGary.
“Everybody’s embracing [their roles] and it’s kind of like everyone is fitting into place,” Morgan said. “As we’re getting more comfortable on offense knowing our roles and excelling in our roles we can focus more on that defensive end.”
And defensively, they held Iowa to a season-low 67 points even though the Hawkeyes shot 47 percent from the floor. They didn’t allow any Iowa player to get into an offensive flow for too long -- Melsahn Basabe had 15 first-half points, but just two second-half points; White might’ve had his 13-point run at the end of the game, but he had scored only four points prior to that.
No team in the Big Ten will ever truly get a night off, but there are tests and at this point in the season -- this three-game stretch -- the Wolverines are passing. And they’re passing because they’ve failed before.
Next exam? Saturday at 7 p.m. The subject? Sparta.