March 16, 2014 at 11:28 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Undeterred, Michigan focuses on the critical road ahead

Indianapolis — There’s no time to linger or lament, not now. So while the Spartans were on the floor snipping nets, the Wolverines spent a few minutes assessing their wounds, which were painful but not mortal, before looking ahead.

This was a bit of a reality check for Michigan, to lose to its rival and then lose a shot at a No. 1 seed. Big things suddenly are possible for the Spartans, that’s clear. Big things still are possible for the Wolverines but this was a rough day, capped with a No. 2 seed in the Midwest, opening Thursday in Milwaukee against Wofford.

It’s amazing how much John Beilien’s program has grown that a No. 2 seed can be viewed as mildly disappointing, even if the coach didn’t see it that way.

“There’s so much discussion (about seeding) that is just wasted effort, because what is the big deal?” Beilein said. “Seriously. They’re all the same, take the top 16 teams and there aren’t huge differences. … We’re not ho-hum right now. I want our guys to be really excited about this and they are.”

That shouldn’t be difficult, as 68 teams prepare to dip their sneakers in the healing waters of the NCAA Tournament. The Spartans looked more determined and excited Sunday, pounding the Wolverines 69-55 to win the Big Ten tournament. Tom Izzo finally has a healthy squad and it unleashed the full impact of its stifling defense against Nik Stauskas.

Beilein isn’t interested in debating seeds, and it is kind of pointless now, but there were some strange ones. For instance, the Spartans (26-8) got a lower-than-expected No. 4 in the East, and open against Delaware in Spokane, Wash. The Wolverines (25-8) landed in the most-loaded region, with undefeated Wichita State, Duke and Louisville. And if they win, they’d likely face tough seventh-seeded Texas.

There’s no such thing as an easy path to the Final Four anymore, and you don’t have to hit the Michigan roads to find potholes. This is as balanced and unpredictable as the Tournament has been, with no overwhelming favorite.

“Obviously it’s a tough bracket,” said Stauskas, who shot 4-for-14 against Gary Harris’ terrific defense. “With the tradition this program is seeing, you start to expect you’re gonna be in the Tournament. It doesn’t mean we take this for granted. We’re happy and excited.”

'Best is ahead'

The Wolverines’ faces betrayed them somewhat, as they stood in the hallway outside their locker room, the loss still fresh. They beat their rivals twice and won the regular season title, and if the Spartans announced their return with a punishing performance, the Wolverines certainly aren’t ready to retreat.

They know they entered the Tournament last year coming off a crushing loss, and still rolled to the title game. Capturing a No. 1 seed can be a pride thing, and Michigan was in the mix. But last year it was a four seed and managed to fill its share of potholes.

To do it again, the Wolverines can’t afford any desperation deficits. This game clearly mattered a ton to the Spartans. They were more aggressive and their inside game was dominant, and I assume no one still wonders what it means to have Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson healthy again.

Michigan State woke up in the Big Ten tournament, and in the process, Michigan might have gotten a bit of a wake-up call. The Wolverines had won seven straight and hadn’t lost in a month, and there’s nothing wrong with a nasty reminder before the games really count.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think this game matters too much,” Stauskas said. “We’d rather lose right now than have our season end in the Tournament. We want to congratulate them, they played a great game, they wanted it a lot. But the best is ahead of us.”

Motivational factor

The toughest is ahead, that’s for sure. If it wins twice, Michigan could face Duke back in Indianapolis, and it can’t afford another poor shooting effort — 31.5 percent against MSU.

The Wolverines have been very good in close games, but when their shooting is off, it’s sometimes way off. Bigger, physical teams have bothered them, and their defense has been spotty, at best. That’s why it’s important for Glenn Robinson III to attack the basket and rebound. He’s been playing well, and if an ugly outing against the Spartans is the anomaly, the Wolverines like their chances.

“I wouldn’t say we’re disappointed (about the seed),” Robinson III said. “If we would’ve gotten it, that would’ve been great. We didn’t, that’s fine too. We’re ready to play. We take everything from now on as motivation, and maybe to prove we should’ve got that.”

For a smooth-running team that easily won the Big Ten regular season, this had to be a momentary humbling. When it’s happened before, the Wolverines have rebounded nicely, never losing two in a row. It only takes one loss to end it now, and on a day the state of Michigan’s finest battled it out for the nation to watch, stark realities abounded, and rugged roads were revealed.

Michigan State's Gary Harris takes the ball away from Michigan's Nik Stauskas on Sunday. / Dale G. Young / Detroit News
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