Ann Arbor — Two months ago, Michigan was unranked and coming off a crushing, last-second loss to Purdue.
A few weeks later, the Wolverines started off February by clawing out an overtime win over Minnesota before suffering a setback at Northwestern.
Since then, Michigan has ripped off nine straight wins and has continued a steady climb — both in the team’s development up and down the roster as well as in the national rankings.
“It’s a long season. You’re just going to have those ups and downs. That’s what it is and you just have to keep coaching through it,” Michigan coach John Beilein said Friday. “Any team that doesn’t have ups and downs, watch out because you’re going to have a quick down in March. It’s all part of the process and hopefully, this is a sign of all our teams.
“We grow throughout the year and you just get better. You get better. Sometimes there’s a loss that you had and realize these little plays that the coaching staff is talking about are really significant when it comes down to a last-second game. That was demonstrated in the Minnesota game where it could’ve went the other way.”
But despite how far seventh-ranked Michigan has come over the last two months, there’s still no sense of satisfaction.
Not even coming off second straight Big Ten tournament title, when the Wolverines didn’t have the same level of desperation as last season and were already a lock to make the NCAA Tournament.
Instead, Beilein took the time to lament a couple of his team’s defensive possessions against Michigan State in the tournament semifinals — one on an open shot by Jaren Jackson Jr. and another on an out of bounds play where Michigan was “absolutely asleep” and led to a clean look for Cassius Winston.
There’s still work to do and it’s a message that has resonated throughout the team. It’s led to some highly competitive practices, like Friday’s intrasquad scrimmage at Crisler Center, as the Wolverines look to maintain their upward trajectory and feisty level of play while dealing with the extra time off before Selection Sunday.
“(Thursday) was a little chippy, actually,” said Beilein, who added the team took Monday and Wednesday off to rest. “We had the first and the second team going at it. … It got a little chippy a few times, so I like that. I think that our defense is growing so much it’s frustrating our own offense.
“That’s a good sign, too.”
Junior center Moritz Wagner and fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson both said the extended layoff — a result of the conference tournament being held a week earlier, at Madison Square Garden in New York — has left the team raring for more postseason glory.
And it was evident throughout Friday’s physical session that pitted the team's starters against the backups, which was open to the media and select students. A swarm of players dove for a loose ball near the scorer’s table. Wagner let out one of his signature tongue wags after draining a 3-pointer. Nearly everyone had some choice words for the opponent.
At one point, Beilein even stopped the scrimmage and ripped into his team for settling for contested shots in a late-game scenario toward the end of practice.
“We haven’t lost our edge at all,” senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman said. “Things get a little chippy, but it’s all in fun. We’re all brothers so it’s nothing too serious, but it’s good to have that sort of edge. I think everybody knows what’s on the line — a national championship.
"Everybody has the same goal and we’re just getting after it.”
Wagner credited Beilein for finding a balance between having the team go full tilt and not wearing anyone down while trying to keep the good vibes flowing.
"You got to keep a certain competitiveness," Wagner said. "We've been doing a great job. I think this team doesn't need a lot of help at being hungry and competitive and wanting to do more and be better. We just approach every day like it's our last. We want to play in April."
With that in mind, Beilein had one demand for the team's first post-Big Ten tournament practice on Tuesday: No smiling. The Garden party was over and Beilein told his assistants he didn’t want anybody — coaches and players — gloating over the recent stretch of success.
Rather, he drove home the point that the coaching staff has to be as demanding as ever because March isn’t the time to become content.
“I think a guy was running to the top of Crisler within 10 minutes of practice (Tuesday),” Beilein said. “We’re back into it right now. Congratulations on the (Big Ten tournament) championship, but we’re not going to ever look at this thing and say we’re satisfied, we made the (NCAA) Tournament and now it’s all good. No, it’s not all good.
“It’s only good if we play at our best and the only way we can be at our best is if we really attack practice.
“We’re trying to practice like we’re not very good, so that we can play like a champion.”
NCAA Selection Show
When: 6 p.m. Sunday
At LCA: The teams that will play first- and second-round games at Little Caesars Arena will be announced. Those games will be played March 16 and 18.