New York — With a young squad that boasts just one senior, one junior, Michigan isn’t necessarily short on experience.
Five sophomores played considerable minutes last season on the way to the title game and freshmen Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin are playing heavy minutes this season.
But the Wolverines grew up a lot in their 68-65 win over Stanford on Saturday night at Barclays Center. It wasn’t a marquee win — like last week’s 72-70 loss to No. 1 Arizona would have been — but it’s a step.
“There were several times during the game that I just said we’re getting better right now. I could see it in front of my eyes with the adjustments we had to make, the things we learned from in that game that we can learn in video tomorrow,” coach John Beilein said. “Like the game with Arizona, the Florida State game, even the Charlotte game, we learned an awful lot in those games.
“You like to do it with a win — and fortunately, we got both.”
At some point this season, whether it’s during Big Ten season, or maybe in March when the NCAA Tournament bids are handed out, Beilein and the Wolverines might look back on the win over Stanford as the one that turned their season around.
Feeling the heat
After surrendering an 11-point second-half lead against Arizona at home, this would have been a tough loss to swallow, after holding a 10-point advantage with 7:31 left.
“That would have been a difficult Christmas holiday season if we had not won that game,” Beilein said. “It’s the same scenario we just went through (with Arizona).”
Arizona scored on its last 11 possessions last week; on Saturday, Stanford scored on 10 of its final 12 possessions.
So, defense clearly still is an issue — as Chasson Randle made a singular effort with 14 of Stanford’s final 17 points.
But this time, Michigan had an answer and got the big shot it needed. Even more encouraging is that shot came from Glenn Robinson III, who has been more aggressive in the last couple of games. Robinson had 17 points, on 6-of-10 shooting from the field.
After Jordan Morgan fouled out with 44 seconds left — and Jon Horford already fouled out — Beilein looked to Robinson, at 6-foot-6, to play center.
And Robinson delivered on offense, giving the Wolverines a four-point lead with 14.1 seconds remaining.
Coach asked me if I could play (center) and I said, ‘Yeah, if the team needs me to do that,’” Robinson said. “We just ran our regular offense — and good thing I pay attention in practice.”
Robinson finished over Stanford’s big man and delivered. It’s the aggressiveness and shot selected that Beilein and the Wolverines have been searching for all season.
“We had to scramble and put (Robinson) at the 5 and run an isolation for him. Thank Goodness he finished it well,” Beilein said. “It’s questions from others — not questions for him. There are always good things to put him going in the right direction. He hasn’t had to do that very often. There was no question in my mind, based on the matchups, what we were going to do on that one.”
On a roll
For Robinson, it was the third straight game with at least 17 points, his highest total of the season. He’s scored in double figures in nine of the 11 games and seems to be cresting now.
“I have a lot of confidence right now. I found some open looks early and got to the rim,” Robinson said. “It seems to be when I get some early shots towards the rim, layups and dunks, I have my best games.”
Michigan finally got a win over a good team. With only one nonconference game left, U-M didn’t have a big win on its resume aside from Florida State.
“We just needed a quality win. So far, Florida State has really been the one team we beat that was really good. We were just looking for an opportunity to have a quality win and show we’re making improvements,” Nik Stauskas said. “We’ve been close in a lot of games and this week was a tough week in practice and we want to show we’re getting better.”
Even without McGary, who was averaging 9.5 points and 8.5 rebounds, U-M showed resolve against a bigger team. Each team had 32 rebounds — the Wolverines had nine offensive — and they got loose balls down the stretch.
The Wolverines may have learned that they can win without McGary, the physical and emotional engine that keyed their trip to the Final Four. But through the adversity of playing without McGary, two other big men in foul trouble and a season on the brink.
But with a win in front of a pro-Michigan crowd, things are turning around. With a favorable start to the Big Ten schedule — starting at Minnesota, home against Northwestern, at Nebraska and home against Penn State — the opportunity to get on a streak is theirs for the taking.
“We just have to come out with the right mind set and keep getting better every game,” Robinson said. “We’ve played some teams but the ball hasn’t always bounced our way. If we keep practicing and getting better, the sky’s the limit for this team.”