Louisville, Ky. — Michigan was brimming with confidence and riding a high heading into Tuesday night’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge clash.
But by the time the final horn sounded at the KFC Yum! Center, the No. 4 Wolverines were brought back down to earth and had their hot start doused with cold water in a humbling 58-43 loss to No. 1 Louisville.
“This builds character,” coach Juwan Howard said. “It’s the best way to learn. Sometimes we get punched in the mouth. Our guys, they will respond. I trust. We all trust.”
Michigan’s offense — which had dominated and dismantled North Carolina and Gonzaga last week — struggled to breathe against Louisville. The Cardinals made it a priority to keep senior guard Zavier Simpson out of the lane and essentially cut the head off the Wolverines’ offensive attack.
It pushed Michigan (7-1) out of its comfort zone and led to the team’s worst offensive performance in years. The 43 points were Michigan’s fewest in five seasons and the 25.9-percent shooting percentage was its lowest in three years.
While it was a long night, it wasn’t entirely a lost one for a Michigan team that is still finding its way and is far from a finished product eight games into Howard’s tenure.
That’s because Howard saw some beauty in the struggle. The team’s first true road test of the season came in a packed pressure cooker that was buzzing from tip-off and had the atmosphere of a postseason matchup.
Howard said his players handled the environment “in a professional way, with mental stability.” That showed as Wolverines didn’t let their offensive woes affect their defensive effort and clawed back within four points in the second half after trailing by as much as 15 in the first half.
Louisville entered the meeting ranked No. 2 in the nation in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency while shooting 51.9 percent from the field and 48 percent from 3-point range. On Tuesday, the Cardinals were held to season lows in points (58), field-goal percentage (36.7 percent), 3-point shooting (21.1 percent) and made 3-pointers (four).
“We shot 20 percent in the first half, but we were only down 10 points (at halftime),” Howard said. “Our defense was rock solid. Look at the fact that how we guarded the 3-point line, how we cut down in transition buckets, as well as made them work for every shot.
“We’re one of the best defensive teams too in college basketball and proved it.”
Even as misses piled up during a 3-for-25 shooting stretch to start the game, Howard never thought his players lost their composure. When an 11-1 Louisville run sent the packed arena into a frenzy and prompted him to take a first-half timeout, Howard noted nobody was rattled in the huddle.
“They love and enjoy competition like this — being on the road, going into a tough environment where fans had a great turnout,” Howard said. “Our guys are not afraid. We have guys who have been through this before.”
But there were also several rotation guys — like sophomore guard David DeJulius, sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. and sophomore center Colin Castleton as well as freshman wing Franz Wagner — who were getting their first taste of playing larger roles in a big-time college game like Tuesday’s top-five showdown.
According to senior center Jon Teske, none of them seemed overwhelmed by the moment.
"I think they did well. It was their first time really getting in there and playing meaningful minutes,” Teske said. “I remember when I was a sophomore and going in there, the only way you can get that experience is actually going in there and playing in these types of games. I know Dave, Colin and Brandon will all learn from it, grow, and down the road you'll see it in future games."
This will also be the younger Wolverines first time having to deal with a situation like this — moving past and bouncing back from a dreadful offensive performance where nothing seemed to go right.
"It's just one game. I mean, no team is going to go undefeated," Teske said. "You're going to have highs and lows. Just tell the guys to keep going."
On a night where Michigan could’ve picked up another signature win, it instead left with its first loss and plenty of teaching moments.
“We’ve played eight games and we’ve played some tough teams throughout that stretch. We’ve also learned from each game and gotten better game by game,” Howard said. “I trust that we will get better. This is a great development in transition leading into conference play. The beauty of this game is that you get a chance to play again Friday at home versus Iowa. We are chomping at the bit.”