Ann Arbor — It is now February, the time of the college basketball season when teams either continue to develop and the players take on more of a leadership role, or they slide from postseason contention.
Michigan coach John Beilein understands that slippery slope.
The Wolverines (18-6, 7-4 Big Ten) are ranked No. 24 nationally and have seven remaining regular-season games beginning with Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. game against Minnesota (14-10, 3-8) at Crisler Center. They are coming off a not-so-scintillating win over Northwestern and used the last several days of practice to get healthy and work hard.
Beilein knows playing consistently this final stretch of games before the Big Ten tournament, which starts Feb. 28 at Madison Square Garden, is vital.
“I’m trying to do the old, ‘One day at a time’ because I get crazy when I start thinking about these games we have in front (of us),” Beilein said Friday at a news conference. “It is really important for us. If you look at us, we don’t have enough done yet and we have to really play well in February.
“If we don’t, we will not be playing in the NCAA Tournament. We have to find a way to win some games. I don’t think there’s a game on our calendar left if we don’t play well we’ll win. There’s not one game. We have to play every game. We’ve got to play well a whole lot more than we don’t. There’s many more wins we have to get.”
Michigan coach talks about what team has stressed and worked on in recent practices prior to Saturday's game against Minnesota. Angelique S. Chengelis, Detroit News
Beilein does like how refreshed the team seems after a four-day stretch without a game.
“I feel that we’re rested,” he said. “I feel we’ve had really good practices. We’re healthy. Somebody will step on Moe’s (Wagner) foot every now and then and he’ll be out a few minutes, but I feel we’re in position to be in position. Now we have to do this.”
Wagner said the Wolverines have plenty to build upon this month and said they are capable of “huge improvement." Michigan has been a slow-starting team on offense, and that has been a focal point, along with establishing more consistency on defense.
“We have a lot of freshmen on this team that still think they know a lot, including me. I’m a junior, but I don’t know anything,” Wagner said. “That’s the way we go out there. We’re very confident, but we scored, how many points? Twelve points in the first 10 minutes last game (against Northwestern). That’s pathetic. There is so much to learn. Even though it was against a zone, that is no excuse.
“We don’t start games well. We still have defensive brain farts, stuff like that we’ve got to get more consistent. We also gave up 92 points against a good team (Purdue), but that’s 92 points. That’s a lot of points for one game in college.”
Like Beilein, Wagner believes the one-day-at-a-time approach is the best at this stage. It’s too easy to look way ahead, but even easier to lose track and crumble.
The Wolverines know their limits, and that keeps them grounded and looking toward how to improve.
“We know we’re not good enough yet,” Wagner said. “The whole thing of thinking about how good we can be, we don’t think about that. We think about the next game, taking step by step, because that’s what we’ve been doing here.”
Junior center talks about the key to improving this late in the season. Angelique S. Chengelis, Detroit News
This is also the time of the season where Beilein takes a more personal approach to his players and subscribes to a way of thinking his former assistant Jeff Meyer used to share. Meyer would say they have to coach the players’ hearts during the late stages of the season.
Austin Davis, for instance, had an important physics exam on Thursday, and Beilein said he planned to spend more time developing his relationships with players. With Davis, he said he would find time to ask him about the exam and how he felt he performed.
“It’s really important that you show a lot of love, a lot of relationship building with your team during this time,” Beilein said. “Show them you really care about some other things because it’s a long year.
“This year because of the shortened year, we have 90 regular practices, and we had to take additional days off. This is practice No. 74 (Friday). That’s a lot of practices. There’s generally two practices for every game, and we have seven games left. There’s 14 plus a few extras in there, so it’s important we have them focused and say, ‘Let’s do everything we can — today we’ll go 105 minutes — everything we can in those 105 minutes to get better.'”
But this also is the time of the season where the players begin to take more ownership.
“At this point of the year, the good teams develop,” Wagner said. “At this point of the year, the good teams develop or when they aren’t yet, they’re going to develop into a players-led team. The X’s and O’s get less important just because you’ve been through that already in the last third of the year.
“We know about the stuff. We’ve just got to do it. If coach can’t make us do it, we’re the only people who can make us do it. That’s what he’s trying to develop. We are all aware of that fact. We are all embracing that.”
Minnesota at Michigan
Tip-off: 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor
Records: No. 24 Michigan 18-6, 7-4 Big Ten; Minnesota 14-10, 3-8
Outlook: Michigan has won nine of the last 10 meetings...Junior F Jordan Murphy is the only player in the Big Ten averaging a double-double with 17.7 points and 11.9 rebounds for the Gophers, who have lost four straight and seven of eight.