January 10, 2013 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Ugly win might be just what Michigan needed

Ann Arbor -- It's not supposed to be as easy as they were making it look.

And it won't be from here on out, starting this weekend as Michigan hits the road in the Big Ten, still undefeated but hardly unbeatable.

If the No. 2-ranked Wolverines needed a reminder about that, they certainly got it Wednesday night at Crisler Arena, deceptively wrapped in a 62-47 victory over a Nebraska team that's probably destined for the conference cellar this season.

With the win, Michigan improved to 16-0 on the season, tying a record for the program's best-ever start, set in 1985-86, not that any of the current players are old enough to remember.

More important, though, without this game, this young group of Wolverines probably were in danger of forgetting just how difficult it's going to be to keep that streak alive.

"I think we needed this, more than anything," admitted Trey Burke, the point guard who finished with a team-high 18 points despite a 6-for-16 shooting night. "I think we definitely needed a game like this, just to stay grounded."

They needed it now because they could afford a game like this against an opponent like Nebraska, which had scored 85 points in its first two Big Ten games combined. By contrast, the Wolverines came in averaging 94.5 points per game in the Big Ten after back-to-back blowouts of Northwestern and Iowa last week.

In 15 games this season, the Wolverines had trailed for less than 60 minutes total. So if there was anything missing for a title-contending team that suddenly seems to have it all, maybe it was simply hardship.

Surviving the struggle

This one was never really in serious doubt, mind you, but at least it was a struggle. Nebraska actually cut the lead to 47-42 with 7:12 to play, and Michigan never had a double-digit cushion until the final five minutes.

All that explained why John Beilein, Michigan's coach, was in a surprisingly chipper mood afterward.

"You may not believe this, but that was a great win," he said. "That's a great win, that we had to grind one out. I mean, my T-shirt is soaked right now, and that's not what you like to do when you're thinking."

He thought about that for a brief moment, then chuckled, "I guess that's too much information, isn't it?"

It is, but it sort of underscored his point, I guess. The Wolverines had to work for this win, and they'd better get used to that feeling, especially with three of their next four games on the road — all of them against ranked teams. (With Ohio State up next, the crowd was chanting "Beat Ohio" as the final minute ticked down Wednesday night.)

Those are teams that, presumably, will be able to crack the 50-point barrier. And shoot better than 34 percent from the field.

Putting in the work

But the opponent notwithstanding, give Michigan credit for doing the dirty work Wednesday as they scratched out a win. They hustled defensively — a few more floorburns for freshman Mitch McGary — and grabbed 16 offensive rebounds to help offset an uncharacteristically awful shooting night.

Michigan entered Wednesday's game leading the nation in points per possession (1.26), and they'd actually improved on that remarkable efficiency in Big Ten play. But they posted season lows for scoring output and shooting percentage against the Cornhuskers, hitting 39 percent from the field, including 3-of-17 from 3-point range, and finishing the game with just six assists.

Only five players scored for Beilein's team, and one of those (McGary) provided just two points — the only scoring off the bench for Michigan in the win. But they grabbed nearly half their misses, led by 11 rebounds apiece from Jordan Morgan and Tim Hardaway Jr., and they committed only five turnovers.

So while it was ugly, it could've been much worse. And after a 15-point win, well, that's still a pretty good feeling.

"You're gonna have games where you can't make a shot, the ball bounces the other team's way, they get a hot shooter … and you still (have to) find a way to win," Beilein agreed. "Believe it or not, as coaches we love these type of wins. You don't necessarily love coaching them. But when you look back at them, these are the ones that build teams."

Winning streaks, too.

john.niyo@detnews.com

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“You may not believe this, but that was a great win,” coach John Beilein said Wednesday. “That’s a great win, that we had to grind one out." / John T. Greilick/Detroit News