Ann Arbor — They were supposed to fade away, wracked by injury and attrition, reduced to spoilers. That was the logical theory after Michigan lost its top player. It's probably what Wisconsin thought as it kept building and rebuilding leads all night.
The Wolverines finally were sent away at the end of a stirring battle, but in the process, they made their strongest point yet that they're not going away. The sixth-ranked Badgers made the key plays in overtime to pull out a 69-64 victory Saturday night, reconfirming they're the Big Ten's best right now.
The Wolverines weren't in the mood for any consolation, but if they consistently compete this hard, they won't have to worry about it. In their second game since losing Caris LeVert for the season, they scrapped and shot and showed they have intriguing pieces. It still will be a struggle for Michigan (12-8, 5-3 Big Ten) to stay in NCAA Tournament contention, especially with a couple of nasty non-conference losses. The schedule gets tougher. Opponents will find different ways to attack.
But John Beilein has proven to be a masterful adjuster, which is good, because this will take masterful adjustment. It's the same thing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State (13-7, 4-3), who's trying to figure out what he has. Is there a chance neither the Wolverines nor Spartans make the Tournament? Yep. There's also a chance they have answers at their disposal.
For Beilein, it could be as simple as Derrick Walton Jr. taking over, as he did against the Badgers. His 3-pointer with 1.3 seconds left forced overtime and sent the Crisler Center crowd into a frenzy. It was an arduous climb from an 11-point deficit, as practically every possession became Walton dribbling, dribbling, then trying to create to beat the shot clock.
It was almost unfair. Bo Ryan has a roster loaded with experience and size, and whenever he needed a big basket, Frank Kaminsky or Sam Dekker provided it. The Badgers basically rode their starting five, while Beilein used 11 players, including walk-ons. Michigan's bench outscored Wisconsin's 26-0, and the Wolverines actually won the rebounding battle.
No moral victories
So at the end of a long, eventful day, with ESPN "College GameDay" in town and Jim Harbaugh in the house with recruits, there were reasons to believe more positive surprises were possible.
"None of us should be happy," Beilein said. "The pats on the back — 'good game' — I absolutely hate after a loss. I want them to have that mentality. At the same time, when we go over the things we need to fix, we'll also be showing what's been fixed. We still gotta be tougher in a lot of areas. We could've won that game if we had just a little more edge to us."
Part of that edge has to come from sophomore Zak Irvin, who's trying to make the tough transition from shooter to all-around player who draws defensive attention. It's the same transition Nik Stauskas made, and Trey Burke made, and LeVert was struggling to make before suffering the broken foot.
Beilein mixes and matches — lineups and zone defenses and offensive sets — as well as any coach in America. Michigan has lost so many players prematurely the past few years, and managed to keep contending, it's like removing a shovel from a sandbox and watching the sand shift to naturally fill the hole.
To fill the LeVert crater, a few of the freshmen will have to accelerate their development. Quick guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman is a rising possibility, and could work his way into the starting lineup. Aubrey Dawkins and energetic big man Ricky Doyle have had their moments.
The players admitted LeVert's injury was crushing, but they grinded out a 54-50 victory at Rutgers. This was the next tender step. Walton, who had 17 points, hated the finish but liked what he saw. The Wolverines' entertaining effort so encouraged the crowd, it delivered a loud ovation after the final buzzer.
"With or without (LeVert), we feel we can compete with anybody," Walton said. "Mostly, I'm really proud of the younger guys being able to show what they can do."
Beilein said his team is "learning about competing," and that's interesting. It's not just competing against opponents, but competing against each other. It's why he keeps throwing out unusual lineups, looking for that elusive edge.
Remember, the Wolverines were frantically searching even before LeVert went down. They lost to New Jersey Institute of Technology and Eastern Michigan. They were blown out at Arizona, at Purdue and at Ohio State. They don't have a top-50 victory, and then they nearly had it against Wisconsin.
"We just gotta understand, we can do this," Beilein said. "I like that we're proceeding in the right direction. But my makeup is such, somehow we gotta get there quicker."
They'll get their chance. Next Sunday, they visit Michigan State, and someone will begin to define themselves. At least the Wolverines recognize all is not lost, even when it seemed like it was.