Wolverines coach compliments No. 5 Boilermakers, whom his team plays on Tuesday night at Crisler Center. Angelique S. Chengelis
Ann Arbor — Looks can be deceiving, even to a 40-year coaching veteran like John Beilein, who has just about seen it all.
And that’s certainly true at this time of year, when the schedule tightens and the throat occasionally does, too, leaving Michigan’s coach to combat the long hours of video work and practice planning with extra helpings of hot tea.
Beilein’s voice was a gravelly mess Monday as he met with the media to talk about the week ahead — a brutal stretch of three games in six days that probably won’t define the Wolverines’ season, but one that could shape it.
But even in that state, Beilein still managed to laugh about his own scouting screw-up Monday, as his team prepares to host No. 5 Purdue (15-2 overall, 4-0 Big Ten) Tuesday at Crisler Center with a rivalry showdown against No. 4 Michigan State (15-2, 3-1) looming Saturday in East Lansing.
“I looked at their stats — or I thought I was looking at their stats,” Beilein said of the Boilermakers, who have won 11 in a row and sit atop the Big Ten standings along with Ohio State.
Yet when he scanned the sheet to find Purdue’s defensive field-goal percentage, he didn’t see what he expected to from a Matt Painter-coached team that boasts four senior starters. Beilein saw the Boilermakers were allowing opponents to shoot 42.3 percent, “and I said, ‘Oh, they’re not that good this year.’”
“And then I realized I was looking at our stats,” Beilein added, laughing.
So, no, they’re just as good as he’d feared, limiting opponents to 37.6 percent shooting, seventh-best in the nation. That’s still six spots behind the Spartans, who despite Sunday’s surprising road loss in Columbus — a result that cost them their No. 1 ranking in the polls — remain arguably the nation’s most complete squad.
“Both teams, they can beat anybody in the country, at any time, on any court,” Beilein said. “And we’re playing ’em back-to-back.”
And it’s with that in mind that Beilein talks about the challenge this week presents for a young Michigan team that’s gaining confidence — the Wolverines have won seven in a row themselves — but is about to find out how much growing up they still have to do.
“It’d be great to get a win,” said Beilein, whose team also hosts Maryland (14-4, 3-2) next Monday. “But it’ll be a great benchmark for us, for where we are as we try to develop our team.”
Where they are now, no one can really say for sure. Michigan hasn’t gotten the kind of consistent performances expected from its best player, Moe Wagner, who passed on the NBA draft last summer but is trying to find his groove again after a mid-December ankle injury. Seniors Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson also have run hot and cold — Robinson’s shooting just 36.4 percent from three-point range — while Charles Matthews, the Kentucky transfer, is still learning how to pick his spots offensively.
Yet with sophomore Zavier Simpson asserting himself as the No. 1 point guard, and a talented freshman class doing much the same early in Big Ten play, this season has the makings of another late-blooming Beilein success story. Michigan’s far from peak efficiency offensively, but the Wolverines appear to be a much-improved rebounding team — Wagner and backup center Jon Teske are the biggest reasons — and there’s a chance the early defensive success isn’t a mirage, youth notwithstanding.
Saturday’s victory over Illinois was another big step, as freshmen Isaiah Livers and Jordan Poole were among six players scoring in double figures while also helping the Wolverines hold their own on the defensive glass. And for Livers, the 6-foot-7 forward coming off what Beilein openly hoped was a “breakthrough” performance in last week’s win at Iowa, “my confidence is as high as it’s ever been.”
We’ll see where it is a week from now, or even 24 hours from now, as Livers will have his hands full tonight chasing Purdue’s 6-8 senior Vincent Edwards, who’s averaging 14.1 points and 8.6 rebounds and coming off a 21-point, 10-rebound effort against Nebraska.
Freshman believes early setbacks have the prepared team for rigors of the Big Ten season. Angelique S. Chengelis
“I love it,” Livers said. “(Beilein) told me in film yesterday, ‘Isaiah, you’ve got a big challenge.’ This guy is kind of a replica of you — he just has a lot more experience than you.’ And I said, ‘Great, Coach. Now I can see where I’m at.’ I’m looking forward to it.”
They all are, from the sound of it. (“Everybody wants to get out there and play their best against the best teams,” Abdur-Rahkman said.) And Michigan obviously could use a win over a ranked team to bolster its NCAA tournament resume. But Selection Sunday is still two months away, so for now, if you ask the Wolverines’ coach, what he sees in front of him is all that really matters.
“If we beat the Purdues and Michigan States,” Beilein said, “then I’ll probably be a believer that we’re OK.”
Purdue at Michigan
Tip-off: 9 Tuesday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor
TV/radio: ESPN/950 AM
Records: No. 5 Purdue is 15-2, 4-0 Big Ten; Michigan is 14-3, 3-1
Outlook: Michigan is riding a seven-game winning streak into the contest. Purdue has won 11 straight. ... It’s the first of two games this week against top 5 opponents for UM, which is at No. 4 Michigan State on Saturday.