For a team ranked in the top 10 in the preseason, you'd think that there'd be nothing but disappointment following Michigan's fourth loss of the non-conference portion of the schedule.
But, perhaps surprisingly, head coach John Beilein and his players seemed very happy with their performance in a 72-70 loss to No. 1 Arizona on Saturday in Ann Arbor.
"What a great team we just played," Beilein said during his postgame press conference. "I've had the opportunity to play a lot of really good teams over the time, whether I was at Canisius or Richmond or here, teams that won national championships ... but that is as solid, well-coached, put-together — length, speed, backcourt, everything — that we've seen, that I've seen. We feel good that we were right there and with a break or two could have won the game. But Arizona's really good. At the same time, it gives us great confidence but also a great attitude to come back and get better now."
Michigan's schedule has been brutal so far this season, and those four losses have come mostly against quality teams. The Wolverines were defeated on the road by an Iowa State team now ranked highly, as well as at Duke, a top-10 team and perennial powerhouse. Before the non-conference season is through, Michigan will have played a tournament in Puerto Rico — in which they needed overtime to beat Florida State before losing to Charlotte in the championship game — and a neutral-site game against Stanford, coming up Saturday. This past Saturday's loss to top-ranked Arizona was just the latest to come against top competition.
But last season's national runners-up weren't looking at the loss to Arizona as another devastating blow. Rather the Wolverines were pleased with a game in which they were a basket away from upsetting the No. 1 team in the country. They were pleased with the improvement.
Plus, you might remember, Michigan entered the NCAA tournament last season with seven losses, six in conference play, before marching all the way to the title game. It's a long season. And finding its way without arguably its top two players from a year ago — departed NBA lottery picks Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. — Michigan knew it wasn't going to be smooth sailing, even if it did have a single-digit number in front of its name when the season tipped off.
"This season is going to be one where all year, in the process, these things are going to make us better," Beilein said. "You looked at our schedule and you looked at who we are, we weren't going to come out of this 10-0 or whatever. We were going to have losses. Now this could've been a great win and would've meant something (Saturday), but it probably wouldn't have meant anything in January to us. We have to win in the Big Ten. We have to go and win at a neutral site against a super not only talented but veteran backcourt again in Stanford. Got to beat Holy Cross. Then all of a sudden we're into it. So it's all part of the big picture. A win here certainly helps you, but I don't think it decides your season if you lose it."
And if anything's on the Wolverines' side, it's time.
"All the losses that we've had this season, we're right there down the stretch: Iowa State, Duke, Charlotte, even (Saturday). We've been there in all the games, and down the stretch we just can't pull out those big plays," sophomore guard Nik Stauskas said Saturday. "We had that same kind of problem last year in the Big Ten. We had that stretch where we were losing a lot of games down the stretch, and we told ourselves in the tournament, 'One of those games is going to go our way.' And then the Kansas game, the Syracuse game, things started going our way. So we've got a lot of time. We're not going to be too concerned about this."
The thing is, though, that Michigan's schedule isn't going to get much easier. As it stands, the Wolverines will face three more top-five teams a total of five different times in conference play: No. 3 Ohio State, No. 4 Wisconsin and No. 5 Michigan State. In fact, Michigan plays all three consecutively during a nightmare stretch in mid-February.
But that's all down the line. Beilein is confident that games like Saturday's are stepping stones to the kind of team that Michigan can become. He feels that by the time the thick of Big Ten play rolls around, his team will be able to win games like the one that could've been Saturday.
"Last year was competitive, this year's going to be more competitive, so we better be because it's going to be this type of game home and away. Hopefully away, but it's going to be this type of game at home nine times in the Big Ten. So we better be ready to win these types of games and just grow from it," Beilein said. "And it might have been a missed assignment in the first half that was that difference. But somehow we've got to put it all together so at the end we're on the right side of the scoreboard."