Can Michigan basketball recapture early season magic in Big Ten play after sloppy December?

Wolverines went through motions at end of nonconference play

Zavier Simpsonand Isaiah Livers celebrate with Ignas Brazdeikis after he made a basket and was fouled against Villanova at Finneran Pavilion on Nov. 14, 2018, in Villanova, Pennsylvania. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - It's finally time for the college basketball season to truly begin.

As of Thursday, the six major conferences -- the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC -- have completed their nonconference games and will turn to league play for the rest of the regular season.

Instead of 20-point favorites beating up on smaller schools night in and night out, it's time to see which teams can get through the grind of league play, when any team can win and everyone has to play on the road.

Few teams made it through the first two months of the season unscathed, but as of Jan. 3, Michigan finds itself one of only four teams in the country without a loss -- along with Virginia, Nevada and Houston.

The 13-0 record is all that really matters for Michigan, but that doesn't change the tale of two seasons that have played out so far for the Wolverines.

On the first day of December, Michigan was the darling of college basketball. It had the best resume in the country with wins over Villanova, North Carolina and Purdue and at least a 17-point margin in all eight victories.

Charles Matthews and Jon Teske celebrate a win over North Carolina at the Crisler Center on Nov. 28, 2018, in Ann Arbor. (Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Michigan's winning ways continued throughout December, but it hasn't looked like the same dominant team.

From the start of the season through Dec. 1, Michigan played three teams that are currently ranked in the top 25 on KenPom. Since then, the Wolverines have played No. 52, No. 124, No. 210, No. 263 and No. 328.

Despite the drop in competition, the games were much closer.

After winning the first eight games by at least 17 points each, Michigan beat Northwestern, South Carolina and Western Michigan by a combined 21 points.

In each of the last five games, Michigan's opponent has been within at least six points in the second half. Northwestern had a 3-point lead with under six minutes to go. South Carolina and Air Force stayed within single digits well into the second half. Western Michigan was down just 5 points with under two minutes to play, and Binghamton was within 3 points with under 12 minutes remaining.

Michigan coach John Beilein shouts out instructions during the game against South Carolina at the Crisler Center on Dec. 8, 2018, in Ann Arbor. (Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Most importantly, Michigan won the games. But as Big Ten play begins, the Wolverines have to get back to the level of play that carried them through a tough November slate.

There are 10 good teams in the Big Ten, and nobody is a pushover on the road. Of the 18 games remaining on Michigan's regular-season schedule, only two will come against the bottom four teams at home, meaning the other 16 offer some type of challenge.

Michigan's goal over the next two months is to win a Big Ten regular season title. If it plays like it did in the first month of the season, Michigan is the favorite. The team that sleepwalked through December would have trouble keeping up with the likes of Michigan State, Wisconsin and Nebraska.

John Beilein's teams are known for improving drastically into February and March. This year's team got off to a much quicker start than the teams that went to the Sweet 16 and Final Four the last two seasons.

Michigan will try to avoid what happened the last time it entered the new year undefeated. In 2012-13 the team started 16-0 before finishing just 10-7 and earning a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

That doesn't sound bad -- especially since the 2012-13 team eventually went to the national championship game -- but Michigan has much higher expectations right now as the No. 2 team in the country.

The grind begins Thursday night when Michigan hosts Penn State at the Crisler Center. January also includes four games against ranked opponents -- two on the road.

Michigan proved in November it can play with any team in the country, and the recent struggles could very well be the result of long breaks and unexciting opponents. But there are no days off in Big Ten play, so it's time for Beilein's team to flip the switch once again.

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