Ann Arbor — This is unfamiliar territory for Michigan’s veteran players.
Junior forward Isaiah Livers and junior guard Eli Brooks had never experienced a losing streak during their college careers until this season.
Senior guard Zavier Simpson and senior center Jon Teske haven’t been a part of a Michigan team that has lost back-to-back games since they were both freshmen.
And for the first time since they have been with the program, all four upperclassmen have run into a rough patch where the team has lost three of four games.
That’s the situation Michigan is in after it suffered a crushing overtime defeat to Oregon last weekend in a game that went down to the final shot in the final second. To make matters worse, the Wolverines have had to sit and let that loss fester for a week.
“You want to get that taste out of your mouth as quick as possible, but it is what it is,” freshman wing Franz Wagner said Friday. “We have a new chance tomorrow to play our game and we've got to be focused.”
That opportunity will come at home Saturday against Presbyterian as Michigan’s schedule finally eases up after a brutal seven-game stretch against seven consecutive top-50 teams.
During that span, the Wolverines turned in a woeful shooting display in their first true road game at then-No. 1 Louisville. Then following a home win over Iowa, they were bullied in the paint and on the glass at Illinois before suffering the down-to-wire defeat against Oregon.
"You learn about your group,” coach Juwan Howard said of losing three of four. “You learn a lot how you're being able to adapt to adversity, how you're going to respond from it. I'm fortunate enough I have a group that comes in and they're ready to work. Honestly, they wished they could've played the next day (after the Oregon loss). That's how it burns them inside. That's how competitive each and every player is on our roster.”
Howard added that the team spent Monday and Tuesday focusing on improving its “championship habits” — like competing hard from start to finish, not allowing mistakes to become compounded and fighting through adversity — before shifting its attention to the areas it needs to work on and clean up on Thursday and Friday.
Wagner said while the team has done a good job of staying together “even when things weren’t going our way,” it needs to improve at getting stops and rebounding on the defensive end and executing better on the offensive end.
But most importantly, Wagner said Michigan needs to play with energy from start to finish for a full 40 minutes, which “haunted” the Wolverines in their losses to Illinois and Oregon.
“We always talk about building championship habits and playing every practice like it's a game,” Wagner said. “You've got to approach it as if this is the last game you'll play right now. Then when game time comes, you don't have to flip the switch.
“We talked about that (energy) a lot this week, that you can't just keep flipping the switch on and off. It doesn't work like that. You have to do it every time.”
According to Livers, the losing streak will test the team’s mental toughness and will come down to two scenarios. Either the Wolverines go on the floor and look like a team that has lost two straight or they will learn from the back-to-back defeats and show it.
Livers said to the biggest takeaway from the recent losses has been a lack of communication on the defensive end, both in halfcourt and in transition.
“There were a couple defensive film clips that we watched where we just were not talking (against Oregon),” Livers said. “We were running into each other and they were getting an open shot.
“Then just getting back (in transition defense), sprinting back to halfcourt. You're looking, you're talking, 'Colin, Colin stay high. X stay over there. Sleep get middle, get middle.' Just little stuff like that to get back into our habits.”
And get back to the winning ways Livers and most of the Wolverines have grown accustomed to.
“I want to get right after it. I want to go right back out there and prove ourselves,” Livers said. “(The week break) is good, too, because this is more like an assignment and we've been studying for it the whole time. Tomorrow is exam day and it's going to be huge.”
Presbyterian at Michigan
Tip-off: Noon Saturday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor
Records: Presbyterian 2-9, No. 14 Michigan 8-3
Outlook: Michigan's Brandon Johns Jr. is ill and will sit this one out. ... Presbyterian has lost three straight and its lone win against a Division I opponent was an 80-77 overtime victory at VMI back in November. The Blue Hose are led by sophomore forward and Flint native Cory Hightower, who is averaging 12.3 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. ...This will be the first meeting between the teams.