Paul: UM has been dandy at avoiding disaster
It might not seem like much.
But, boy, did Michigan need that win against Minnesota on Wednesday night.
“Tonight was a fresh start,” Derrick Walton Jr. said.
“The last couple games, the way things went, we wasn’t going to hang our heads.”
Michigan has been the king of doing what it needs to do this season.
It hasn’t had an abundance of signature wins, but it hasn’t had any signature losses.
In beating Minnesota, 82-74, at Williams Arena in Minneapolis, it improved to 8-4 in the Big Ten, and 18-7 overall.
It also kept its streak alive of winning every game it was supposed to.
All seven of Michigan losses were to ranked teams, at least at the time, and all but one of its wins have been against unranked teams.
So, despite a horrific last week in which Indiana and Michigan State came to Crisler Center and absolutely dominated, the Wolverines remain at least on the bubble for an NCAA Tournament appearance, with a little more than two weeks remaining in the regular season.
“You look at the dark side of that one, we lose that one, now it’s going to be very difficult,” coach John Beilein said after a game in which Minnesota (0-12 Big Ten) climbed all the way to within two points late before fading.
“This gives our kids a little pep in their step. They were really happy.”
There hasn’t been a lot to smile about for the Wolverines lately, unless you consider that Beilein shared his birthday cake with the team on Tuesday.
Caris LeVert’s been out 11 games now, and, who knows, might not return this season.
Walton’s been cold. Zak Irvin’s been cold. Duncan Robinson’s been cold.
The defense had been getting shredded, mercilessly.
Wednesday might’ve been just what the Wolverines needed.
No, the Gophers aren’t good. They’re pretty darn awful, in fact. But they’ve still given scares to much better teams than Michigan, including Michigan State, Indiana and Purdue.
Even at Crisler last month, Minnesota made a bid for a stunning win.
This was a road game, and winning on the road anywhere in the Big Ten is tough to do, so Michigan deserves credit for pulling this one out.
In the process, Walton finally heeded Beilein’s urging, and shot and shot and shot — taking a season-high 15, and making nine of them, for 26 points.
Robinson, 2-for-13 on 3-pointers his previous three games, made four of seven in this one, and had a season-high in rebounds with nine.
Even Irvin, his shot way off again, made the play of the game, with the assist to Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman in the final minute, and Abdur-Rahkman, also slumping, finished with the and-one to ice the much-needed victory.
Michigan badly needed a pick-me-up, and this was it, even if it was a game it was supposed to win.
“We were all really frustrated,” Robinson said.
Tough road ahead
It got easier for Michigan on Wednesday.
Now, it gets tougher — a whole lot tougher.
Michigan has six games left in the regular season, and only one of them is a game it should win — at home against Northwestern.
No. 18 Purdue visits Saturday, then next week the Wolverines travel to No. 2 Maryland, which hasn’t lost at home since December 2014, and Ohio State, which isn’t ranked but has quality wins, including against Kentucky.
After the Northwestern home game Feb. 24, Michigan has to travel to red-hot Wisconsin, a tough place to play even when the Badgers aren’t on fire, and finishes at home against No. 4 Iowa on March 5.
Michigan could easily go 1-5 in those six games, but probably goes no worse than 2-4. It has to go at least 3-3 to secure an NCAA Tournament appearance, as that would give it 21 wins — or 20 if you don’t count the opener against Division II Northern Michigan, which you shouldn’t.
Anything less than 3-3, and Michigan could need a good showing in the Big Ten tournament — or be in jeopardy of missing the NCAA Tournament for a second consecutive year.
The Wolverines have been kings at doing just enough this season. They got a quality win over Texas in nonconference season, and a quality win over Maryland earlier in the Big Ten season. And, again, and most importantly, no backbreaking losses.
“Tomorrow comes, we just focus on tomorrow,” Walton said. “It’s all about staying in the moment.”
That said, this moment sure beats the previous one.