Madison, Wis. — There was no celebration, no parade and no trophy hoisted at the Kohl Center on Saturday.
Sure, the Wolverines won at Wisconsin for the first time since 1999 — when Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time” was the No. 1 song — but Michigan coach John Beilein knows it’s way too early to start celebrating, no matter how much of a milestone it was for the program.
Toppling the No. 3 team is significant — it’s the highest-ranked team U-M has beaten on the road in its history — but Beilein has learned to balance success along with disappointment in his seven seasons at Michigan. Last year’s loss in overtime at the Kohl Center after a half-court shot at the end of regulation tied it was a lesson, as was the loss at Penn State that punctured their Big Ten title hopes.
U-M (13-4, 5-0 Big Ten) is cruising with its seventh-straight win but Beilein has kept things in perspective, as the Wolverines have faced teams in the lower tier of the conference.
“Our wins at Minnesota and Nebraska were in doubt when the ball was going up at the end. They’re all good games but wins are wins and you’re trying to build your resume,” he said. “At the end of the year, you start to say that was a win over a ranked team — who knows where people are at the end?
“I’m the wrong guy to ask these questions. To me, it’s pretty black and white — you’re trying to win games and trying to get to the top of your league and I don’t care who you have to beat to get there.”
Tough road ahead
Michigan pushed to the No. 1 ranking last year, but wound up fifth in the final conference standings, so Beilein has drilled warnings into his players’ heads about getting too cocky too quickly.
“It’s a huge win for us, especially to stay undefeated in Big Ten play,” said Caris LeVert, who had 20 points but also gave up the tying shot last season. “We really came to play today.”
With five wins and 13 conference games left, it’s too early to say anything about what Michigan has done, but the win over Wisconsin has to be a confidence boost. But Beilein is quick to nip even that thought from becoming too big.
“We started our schedule with four teams that have new coaches or are rebuilding. If we started our schedule with the four top teams, we wouldn’t be 5-0 right now — maybe we would, I don’t know,” he said. “The schedule is going to keep getting tougher for us and we’re 5-0. Some of it is due to good play; some of it is where we played and how we played.”
This win was somewhat significant — but more so showed growth for the Wolverines, who have just one senior (Jordan Morgan) and one junior (Jon Horford) on a roster so young that most weren’t even in kindergarten the last time Michigan got a win in Madison.
Both upperclassmen have stepped into key roles while Mitch McGary (back surgery) is on the mend. Against the Badgers (16-2, 3-2), they did it again, with Morgan accounting for six points, eight rebounds and three blocks — and drawing praise from Beilein.
“That was the best Jordan Morgan has rebounded and he got traffic rebounds that he wasn’t getting when he had a bad ankle or (wasn’t) feeling as comfortable as he is right now,” Beilein said. “I’m proud of those two kids.”
Come a long way
Even for Nik Stauskas, who hit the key 3-pointer with 48.2 seconds left that stemmed the tide of Wisconsin’s comeback and pushed a one-point lead to four, there was some realization of how much the team is improving.
“We’re just growing into our roles and everyone is understanding what they’re responsible for,” said Stauskas, who had 23 points and made six key free throws in the final 25 seconds. “We’re giving each other a lot of confidence; we pump each other up in the timeouts and in practice. When these situations come up, we’re all confident we can make shots.”
The road ahead still is beset with many obstacles, with No. 14 Iowa coming to Crisler Center on Wednesday and the showdown with No. 4 Michigan State next Saturday at Breslin Center as part of ESPN’s “GameDay” presentation.
U-M has another daunting stretch in February — at Iowa, at Ohio State, then home against Wisconsin and Michigan State — that will tell more about who the contenders and pretenders are in the Big Ten.
But as Beilein has drilled into the Wolverines’ heads, it’s about savoring this one victory and just looking ahead to the next opponent — and not any further.