Michigan looks to develop road mentality

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Dustin Johnston

Michigan, like many other high-major basketball teams, played few true road games during its non-conference slate. The Wolverines traveled to Peoria, Ill. to take on Bradley in the hopes of giving the team a taste of a tough road environment. Before that game, Beilein outlined his hopes for using this road game as a simulation of a Big Ten road environment.

“We understand that it’s going to be a really, really large crowd. It’s our first true road game,” Beilein said a month and a half ago. “Anyone who was at our games in Madison Square garden, it wasn’t exactly ‘neutral’ with the support that we had there. We’re excited about it because I think it is very representative of what we’ll see in the Big Ten as far as a hostile home crowd and a talented team.”

That game against Bradley was Michigan’s only “true” road game before traveling to Columbus to play Ohio State last Sunday. Some may say Northwestern should be in that category. I can tell you there were definitively more Michigan fans in the seats at Welsh-Ryan Arena than Northwestern fans — the only thing that made it a road game is that Michigan had to travel a couple hours.

That game in Peoria was an ugly one. Against Bradley, Michigan was uncharacteristically careless with the ball, coughing it up on 20 percent of its possessions. This is about five percentage points higher than Michigan’s turnover rate of 15 percent which is coincidentally better than every Division I team other than Wisconsin. The Wolverines had significantly more trouble hanging onto the ball than they have on average this season, especially late in the game.

Afterward, Beilein gave credit to Bradley for forcing Michigan into the late turnovers.

“That was just a matter of protecting the ball against hard pressure, and obviously it’s something we need to shore up,” Beilein said. “I don’t think we did anything stupid during that time, they just took the ball away from us.”

If Michigan being uncharacteristically sloppy with the ball sounds familiar, it’s because that is exactly what happened in the first half of its only other true road game of the season. Against the Buckeyes, Michigan again turned the ball over on more than once in every five possessions, and one could easily argue that those turnovers at the start of that game were the difference between winning and losing.

With Michigan giving away possessions in the first half, Ohio State was able to get out and score on the fast break. This essentially bailed the Buckeyes out of running their half-court offense, which Michigan was able to stymie in the second half. The easy baskets also allowed the Buckeyes to jump out to an alarming 21-point lead in the first half.

Trey Burke spoke with the media about how he assessed his play in the first half. The point guard ended up with four turnovers, about twice his per-game average.

“Just the way that I carried myself in the first half, I think I was out there playing a little too fast, not playing as poised as I usually do,” Burke said.

Michigan will have to learn how to play with poise during road games on the fly as five of its next eight games come away from home, including tonight’s contest with Minnesota. The strength of the Big Ten will rear its ugly head during this stretch with road games at Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan State.

Burke said Michigan needs to develop a mentality for playing on the road, one that forces the Wolverines to be the aggressors, instead of playing passively.

“Just coming out, trying to be the hammer not the nail from the get-go. I think that’s the most important thing for this team,” Burke said. “Playing on the road, we know it’s tougher because the fans are against you. So we know that we have to play at a higher level and execute at a higher level.”

Minnesota is a team that does a good job of forcing its opponents into turnovers — opposing teams cough it up on 23 percent of their possessions against the Gophers. But being the “hammer not the nail,” as Burke says, could be the difference for the Wolverines, as Minnesota is also one of the most turnover-prone teams in the country with an average turnover rate of 22 percent.

Beilein tried to get his team somewhat prepared for Big Ten road environments by going to Bradley earlier this season, but the coach knows there really is no substitute. The Wolverines will have to learn as they go, and Michigan fans hope they learn quickly.

“You can try and develop (a road mentality) all you want. We did that by trying to play a schedule where we were not always home – I think Duke played their first road game the other day. Most teams play one or two,” Beilein said. “But at the same time, we did everything we could but there’s nothing like the real thing. You’ve got to be out there. With experience, it grows, and that’s the thing. I know all the latest music because we’re playing without being able to hear every day, at least thirty minutes of practice. You cannot hear in there. We ‘re trying to get that done. We blow a lot of switches and we blow a lot of coverage, hoping that it will suffice for game time. It’s not the same.”

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