March 2, 2013 at 6:17 pm

John Niyo

Michigan's freshmen face their final exams against Michigan State

Ann Arbor -- John Beilein calls it "fertilizer."

Disgruntled Michigan fans probably would use less-flattering terms to describe Wednesday's stunning loss to Big Ten doormat Penn State, an embarrassment the Wolverines began wiping from their shoes as they returned to practice Friday.

But while the head coach was busy preaching the need for "positive reinforcement" with his team — "Because they're not bad kids," Beilein reminded us Friday — therein lies the challenge Michigan faces with March Madness looming and losses suddenly mounting.

As good as they are, they're still kids, relatively speaking. And that's not going to change anytime soon. Certainly not before archrival Michigan State comes to town for Sunday's rematch at the Crisler Center. Or before the regular-season-finale against Indiana a week later. Or the tournament games to follow.

Beilein talked hopefully Friday about lessons learned and the fact his team is "four games older" than it was when it got trampled by the Spartans at Breslin Center in mid-February. Yet he knows his team's still going to be the youngest in the Big Ten — and the ninth-youngest in the country — no matter what he says. And if the talented trio of freshmen the Wolverines are relying on keep playing the way they have for much of the last month, it'll be hard to keep the promise this season held not so long ago.

"The sky is not falling," Beilein insisted. "We're just playing, we've had a couple losses, and we've been playing really good teams. And there's a lot of growth in this team."

Maybe so. But it's time to see more of it — and less of the growing pains — from Mitch McGary and Nik Stauskas, whose continued defensive lapses culminated in a second-half benching and another late-game sideline scalding, respectively, in the loss at Penn State. And it's time to see more of it from Glenn Robinson III, who averaged a meager four points per game in Michigan's four losses last month.

Help wanted

This team has an All-America point guard in Trey Burke, flanked by a talented wingman in Tim Hardaway Jr., driving an offense that remains as productive as any in the nation. Everyone points to those two as the on-court leaders of this team, one that was ranked No. 1 in the country in late January and still could be a Final Four contender, even after an 0-for-February showing on the road in the Big Ten.

But as Beilein admitted a few weeks ago, the rest of this season hinges on whether someone else will step up and be a "difference-maker" in March. Obviously, that someone is going to have to be a freshman.

"It falls on us two, and on Jordan Morgan as well," Hardaway said, when asked about rallying the Wolverines — losers of four of their last seven games — while trying to coax more from the first-year players. "But you can (only) do so much for someone and you can talk to someone for so long to get them to do something. … They've just got to go out there and do it. I mean, you can tell them, but they've got to go out there and do it."

Hardaway does, too, of course. He's determined to make amends Sunday for his disastrous 1-for-11 shooting night in the first meeting with Michigan State, and chances are, he will. As Michigan State's Tom Izzo said Thursday, "If Michael (Jordan) comes back and guards him, he's not going 1-for-11 — we know that."

Freshman exam

What we don't know is whether McGary, whose struggles defending ball screens against Penn State resulted in Beilein playing him just 8 minutes Wednesday night, is ready to hold his own against MSU's post tandem of Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne.

If he is, Beilein could try to match Izzo with a bigger lineup featuring Morgan and McGary inside, allowing Hardaway to check Gary Harris and Stauskas to come off the bench. That, along with a friendlier atmosphere at Crisler, would help take some of the pressure off Robinson, who hasn't hit a 3-point shot in nearly a month.

Still, can Robinson push past whatever fatigue he's fighting and match Branden Dawson, his athletic, enigmatic counterpart in the Spartans' lineup? And in the larger picture, can he and the rest of the freshmen — Caris Levert and Spike Albrecht included — match the Spartans' physical play, especially with Izzo's crew coming off a pair of losses and a full week of practice?

"There's a sharper edge that some of those guys are still growing into," Beilein said of his "kids" — taking the good with the bad.

"We talk to 'em all the time about it. But it is not something that you can get out of a guy overnight. It just doesn't happen. They recognize it, they see it, they watch the film."

They just need to do it now. It's March. Time to grow up, or go home before you're ready.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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Michigan freshman Mitch McGary's struggles defending ball screens against Penn State resulted in coach John Beilein playing him just 8 minutes Wednesday night. / Detroit News/Steve Perez