On Tuesday, Feb. 10, the Michigan basketball team was practicing drills it should’ve perfected in September.

On Wednesday, Feb. 11, John Beilein spoke about how the remaining schedule allowed his Wolverines to work their way back onto the NCAA tournament bubble.

And maybe it took one more gut-punching loss for everyone to realize you can’t be a preseason team on Tuesday and an NCAA tournament contender on Thursday. All winter, Michigan has been plugging leaks with corks a size too small, and the water makes its way through every time.

“We’re not great at anything right now, and that gets exposed sometimes in games,” Beilein explained after the latest heartbreak, a 64-52 overtime collapse against Illinois.

“We’re not great at anything right now, and that gets exposed sometimes in games”

One of the biggest struggles has been finishing games, and you don’t need a reminder of the number of times the Wolverines have fallen a possession or two short of a statement victory. You also don’t need me to tell you how Thursday was another one of those opportunities.

But here it is for good measure: Michigan led by seven with three minutes to play, a road RPI top-50 win tantalizingly within reach. Then the Illini scored 21 straight points, forcing overtime and running away during the extra period.

“They didn’t have that same zest that you need going into overtime,” Beilein said of his players.

That’s a problem when there’s an expectation — from the fans, to the athletes, to the coaches — of reaching the NCAA tournament. Earlier this week, Beilein compared this final stretch of the regular season as a “tournament before the [Big Ten] tournament,” and Michigan just got bounced in the first round.

There’s another side to this season, though. The Wolverines are competitive despite playing without a projected NBA first-round pick or their starting point guard, and there are times when Michigan has two walk-ons on the court at the same time. The Wolverines had a ten man roster on Thursday that included two walk-ons, five freshmen, a point guard who committed to Michigan without another scholarship offer.

You wonder how the team is in this position in the first place — despite everything, still good enough to go toe-to-toe in the most difficult venues and against the best lineups in the conference.

And from a mess of inflated expectations, devastating injuries and impressive resilience, you get a Michigan team that’s maddening to watch offensively — except when it’s not — and porous when it matters, yet somehow finds a way to instill hope anyway. Except then they still lose, and you wonder why you’re disappointed, because that’s the result you had expected in the first place.

“As hard as we work … it’s tough to sustain that energy without having the depth you probably need in a game with this type of impact,” Beilein explained Thursday.

Seven years ago, a step back would be expected from this program, but that’s no longer the case. John Beilein has built something here and despite everything else, he and his staff are fighting to keep that winning culture alive.

This year has been a step back — there’s no doubt about that — but the Wolverines will have a core of veterans returning next winter. Next February’s practices won’t be spent reviewing what should’ve been mastered in September.

But this year’s have, and games like Thursday’s are the anticipated result.

“Part of our issue is these late game adjustments that we have to make in a game,” Beilein explained. “We haven’t been able to work at those as much because we’re still trying to dribble the ball and catch the ball on two feet, and shoot the ball with good spin, and the fundamentals of the game. All these young kids shouldn’t be in these situations, but they’re forced to be and we have to get better at it.”

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  • Raftery is insane

    Well-written piece. Much appreciated. Now it becomes a case of crossing fingers to finish in the top 10 in the conference and avoid playing on the first day of the B1G tourney. NIT is still within reach, and the extra games and practice can only help for next year, barring injury.

    • Have a hard time seeing U-M finish behind NEB who finishes with @PU, @MD, IA, @OSU, @ILL, MD, but I guess it’s possible.

      • Raftery is insane

        That is a gauntlet to close for the Huskers, and considering how Pettaway has decided he’s a one-man team, you’re probably right.

        And I like that thinking. My wife and I are heading to the United Center for the tourney on that Thursday instead of Wednesday, and I DON’T plan on leaving my Wolverine gear at home.

  • JohnNavarreIsMyHero

    Every fan has different expectations going into games. I for one was pretty confident in a win here and wasn’t really surprised that we were well on our way to a win.

    What I have noticed is that we are usually one shot away from icing games. One rim out that is a tough luck miss. Those have happened on the road.

    What I have always noticed is that those shots almost always seem to go in when you are at home when your fanbase is right there with you.

    We finally get back to the comforts of our home. We have tasted the other side of things. Its our turn to return the favor and I am confident we will.

  • EchoWhiskey

    My concern is that next year might not look a ton better. We’ll have an older team and hopefully a healthy Walton back to lead them, but talent may still be a concern. Hopefully Chatman comes into his own, because missing on big 2015 targets looks like it’s going to hurt for a couple of years. I’m not saying the sky is falling, the team should improve pretty drastically, but I’m not seeing deep NCAA tournament runs from the current roster.

    • Caris LeVert’s decision will obviously play a part…

      But a healthy Derrick Walton, Zak Irvin as a junior. Spike has grown up a lot during this stretch as well, even as Michigan’s most experienced player.

      Aubrey, MAAR have huge holes in their games, but you can bet that these last two months are accelerating their development. Same with Kam, even if his struggles have been even more exaggerated.

      Duncan Robinson will also help because we all know this team needs more shooters. He’s also 6-8 and has the understanding of Beilein’s offense to hopefully help move the ball better — the real issue with this offense right now.

      Still a lot of variables out there, will be interesting to track.

      • EchoWhiskey

        All fair points. I trust in Beilein to develop the players and a team. We’ll be a better team next year because of putting guys in tough positions this year, for sure.

        • EchoWhiskey

          One followup thought: are we still going to be as thin at the 1-2 positions next year? With Walton back I see the 1-2 positions as a three man rotation: Walton, Spike, MAAR. Another injury or foul trouble and we’re back to Dackich. Am I missing someone else who can play in the back court? Maybe more depth in the front court allows Dawkins or Irvin to slide up to 2 as needed?

          • Without Caris, then yeah you are lacking that depth.

            In ’14 Michigan had Walton/Spike/Nik playing almost all of the minutes at the 1/2, although Caris was a more dynamic player at the wing.

            Aubrey isn’t close to playing the two and Irvin isn’t a good enough passer either IMO. Honestly Kam could be in the mix there too depending on how his development goes.

          • EchoWhiskey

            Yeah, I’m not holding my breath on Caris coming back, but that would certainly change the complexion of next years team. Obviously the talent, but the depth would benefit immensely. Agree that Irvin and Dawkins are not natural fits in the back court.

    • JohnNavarreIsMyHero

      You are probably still in the moment. Talent is a big key to success, but finally having experienced veteran players will help immensely.

      Deep tournament runs are pretty hard to predict anyway. Unless you are Kentucky, Duke type program loading up on 5 stars or a Wisconsin program where players are willing to bypass the NBA and stay, its hard to say.

      All reports indicate that Robinson is an excellent shooter.

      Having a guy like him eligible this season would probably have flipped a bunch of games in our favor.

    • psickert1

      These type of post really irritate me. Look at teams like uConn and Florida who are struggling and have more talent. All teams have transit ip n years….even Duke, Kentucky, UNC…..we are the fanbase that is never optimistic. About our talent. We are stillare being competitive. People are so quick to dismiss players and the team. I mean it really irritates me…..

  • Adam Guiney

    Things are never quite as good as they seem or quite as bad. Obviously this season is not what anyone would have expected going into the season. The team has clearly underachieved relative to preseason expectations. But if you had told me that this team would be playing without Caris and Walton, I wouldn’t have expected them to be able to compete with any of the mid-top tier teams, which they have done. It’s frustrating that they haven’t been able to close, but I choose to take the glass full perspective. Assuming (and it’s a big assumption) we can land some bigger recruits in the coming classes, I think this season can serve as the foundation/core for a future ascension. One of the reasons the teams of the past were successful was because they had program player, guys like Novak, Morgan, and Douglass, that provided continuity and leadership, mixed in with top flight talent – Burke, Hardaway, etc. I think there are a lot of those program players on this team. And one thing this coaching staff has consistently showed is their ability to develop under-rated talent. The reality is that this team will not go anywhere as far as any of us had optimistically hoped going in. But looking ahead to 2015-2016, everyone that comes back (with or without Caris) will be improved and more developed physically. Given where the program had been pre-Belien, I have full confidence he’ll get us back to where we’ve been. And he’s earned the right for the fan base to have a little patience.

    Go Blue! Now and forever.

  • Mattski

    Two things I would kill to know right now are whether there is any hope at all that Caris returns and whether we have a real shot at Jaylen Brown. With those two on the roster. . .

    • Ha… Two lottery picks would help any roster :-)

      • Mattski

        Did Brown visit on the 24th of last month? That’s what it says at his ESPN site. I saw nothing about it.

        • Nope. Rescheduled due to his HS schedule. Trying to fit it in around his playoff schedule now.

          OSU game has been thrown out as a possibility, but again depends on when his team plays.

  • AC1997

    A couple of thoughts on the column and the comments:

    — You forgot that Donnal (who didn’t play for some reason) is also a freshman. So of the 10 players they brought on the trip, you had 2 walk-ons and 5 freshmen.
    — It will be interesting to see what, if anything, they do with open scholarships if Levert leaves. They really need another creator on offense. I think they can live with three true guards in the rotation based on how far MAAR has grown this season, but it would be nice to have another person who could create offense.
    — The rotation next year will be interesting. If Max leaves as originally planned, I see his minutes going directly to Wilson. Robinson will eat into Chatman’s minutes (unless Kam improves a lot) and probably make up for some of Levert’s minutes. I would like to think that getting Walton back, a year of experience for everyone, and adding Robinson/Wilson will turn these close losses into wins…..but it is now harder to see a conference contender after how disappointing this season has turned out.

    • GoBlue0915

      I believe you’re pretty much spot on. If everyone returns except for Caris, and the team stays healthy, I believe we have a top 4 team in the B1G next year. I envision the team 10-deep in no particular order being: Walton, Irving, Albrect, Doyle, Dawkins, Robinson, MAAR, Wilson, Donnal, Chatman.