ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The Michigan basketball team is no longer undefeated after this weekend’s loss at Minnesota, and now it needs to recover from its first setback much quicker than it did last season.
After starting the season 11-0 with impressive blowout victories against three straight ranked teams, Michigan went into Saturday’s game at No. 23 Minnesota as the talk of the college basketball world.
In fact, this season’s start felt a whole lot like Juwan Howard’s first year in Ann Arbor.
Last season, the Wolverines were unranked and unheralded in the preseason polls, but rose all the way into the top five following a 7-0 start.
Included in that winning streak were blowout victories against No. 6 North Carolina and No. 8 Gonzaga to win the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. Everyone was talking about Michigan, and rightfully so.
But in the midst of that attention, No. 4 Michigan traveled to No. 1 Louisville for a Big Ten-ACC Challenge matchup. It was the team’s first letdown, as the Cardinals cruised to an easy 15-point win.
Afterwards, Michigan never quite looked the same. The Wolverines came back home and beat Iowa, but then lost seven of their next 10 games. Injuries to Isaiah Livers certainly played a part in the slide, but all-in-all, after starting the season 7-0, Michigan went just 12-12 over the final three months.
At the start of December, bracketologists were talking about Michigan as a No. 1 seed. By late January, there were genuine concerns about whether the Wolverines would make the NCAA Tournament.
Well, here we are, midway through the 2020-2021 campaign, and the situation is nearly identical.
The Wolverines won their first 11 games, capped with a 19-point win over No. 19 Northwestern, a 25-point win over No. 16 Minnesota and a 23-point win over No. 9 Wisconsin.
Experts and analysts were talking about Michigan being a third elite team in the Gonzaga and Baylor group. The attention could not have been more positive, and it was deserved based on how the team was playing.
But the return trip to Minneapolis didn’t go well, as Michigan got crushed by 18 points without Eli Brooks in the lineup. The offense was stagnant, and the defense was nowhere near as fierce as the last three games.
The loss itself doesn’t actually hurt the Wolverines at all. There’s no shame in losing to a ranked team on the road, especially when that team is undefeated at home with wins over the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State.
Michigan still owns one of the strongest resumes in the sport. But what’s important now is for the Wolverines to put that loss in the rearview mirror and get back to their winning ways.
The next four games might look manageable on paper, but in reality, it’s the exact trap Michigan got ensnared in last season.
Maryland is next on the schedule, followed by a road game at Purdue, a home game vs. Indiana and a trip to Northwestern. While none of those teams are ranked, they could all upset Michigan.
Maryland has already won at Wisconsin and at Illinois -- two of the best teams in the conference. Purdue has wins against Ohio State, Michigan State and Indiana, and is currently one of the hottest teams in the Big Ten. Indiana has been in every game and is led by a superstar in Trayce Jackson-Davis. Northwestern has wins over Michigan State, Indiana and Ohio State, and is especially tough at home.
Last season, Michigan had a stretch where it lost to three unranked teams in a row -- Minnesota, Iowa and Penn State -- in a span of 10 days. It has to avoid falling into that same trap this year.
There are reasons to believe this team is better equipped to avoid a letdown. The offense is deeper and less reliant on Livers. Defensively, the starting lineup is as balanced as any team in the country.
Brooks needs to get back to full strength, first and foremost, and then the Wolverines can try to get back to the level they were playing at before the second Minnesota game.
When the new AP poll comes out Monday, Michigan will remain among the top 10 teams in the nation -- maybe even the top five. But things can change on a dime in college basketball -- just look at last season.