Ann Arbor — The Wolverines are ready to return to normalcy.
After playing four games in 23 days, No. 2 Michigan is welcoming the Big Ten grind and a more regular routine with open arms.
“We're excited to get past this week of playing,” sophomore forward Isaiah Livers said following Sunday’s 74-52 win over Binghamton in the nonconference finale.
“It's hard playing every week. It's like college football, but we like playing every three, four days. That's really good — get two practices in and go prepare down the road for Big Ten.”
Despite finishing the nonconference portion of the schedule with a perfect mark, it was far from perfect — or pretty — at times.
With a mixture of final exams, holidays and seven-day breaks taking place over the past three weeks, Michigan plodded its way through its final few nonconference contests and still managed to close it out with back-to-back wins by at least 20 points.
Livers said it felt like the team has been in a funk early in games due to the less-than-ideal playing schedule, which made it difficult to get into an offensive rhythm. Against Western Michigan, Air Force and Binghamton, Michigan outscored the three teams 92-78 in the first halves and 123-86 in the second halves.
“I'm not going to make any excuses for ourselves, but I definitely feel like it's a factor for how we've been playing in the beginning (of games),” Livers said. “The second half, late in the game we come together like that Michigan team that everybody knows about, but we just got to find a way — that's going to hurt us if we don't figure out how to get going right away. That's going to hurt us in the Big Ten.”
More available game data and scouting also played a role. Livers said at the beginning of the nonconference schedule, whoever could hit an outside shot was simply identified as a 3-point shooter. But more film gave teams more time to scout Michigan’s plays, which led the Wolverines having to figure out what was going to work and what wasn’t.
Still, the survive-and-advance December stretch provided its fair share of lessons. Livers said the one thing he learned is to play with pace and not be impatient by trying to rush or force a shot.
Sophomore guard Jordan Poole said his main takeaway is the team must continue to maintain its same level of focus regardless of the opponent.
“That's what nonconference is about — just facing adversity and still trying to find yourselves early in the year before you hit conference play,” Poole said.
“Just because we're in the Big Ten doesn't mean that we can change how we're playing. Still stay simple, take every game by game, and continue to try to get better every day how we have been.”
That could be easier said than done for some teams who ascend to the top five in national rankings, become complacent and begin to overlook foes.
While coach John Beilein would much rather be flying low at this time of the season, he said he thinks his team has handled the rapid rise fine.
“I don't know how a rookie comes into Major League Baseball and hits five home runs in his first week. … It's really hard to keep that going,” Beilein said. “It did give us a heck of a resume as we go into this important time of the year. I think we're OK with it, but there certainly was times they need their memory jogged about how we got to that point with incredible defense and incredible attention to detail."
Beilein noted there was slippage in that attention to detail on the defensive end against South Carolina and Western Michigan, and Livers said the team’s contest rate on opponents’ shots — assistant coach Luke Yaklich sets the mark at 75 percent — has been down the past few games.
While Michigan hasn't been as sharp in December as it was in November, Beilein said he didn't sense that his team was playing down to the competition at times.
Much like his players, though, he’s eager to move on from nonconference play and resume Big Ten play this week.
“It's hard to put your finger on that, it really is,” Beilein said of his team's recent sluggish stretches. “I know that when Penn State comes here on Thursday (our players) won't be saying, 'Yeah, coach is just speaking his speak again that this team is terrific when I look and I see they're 4-9.'
“Penn State has been a legitimate Big Ten team the last couple years. They were NIT champions last year and got a lot of those guys back. We've got to get ready for them.”