ANN ARBOR — Michigan’s nonconference performance this season was at once scintillating and snooze-worthy.
The Wolverines beat Villanova and North Carolina, schools that claimed the last three college basketball national championships. They topped Providence and South Carolina and Holy Cross and, on Sunday, Binghamton, to complete a perfect November and December.
Michigan is 13-0, with 11 of those wins coming against nonconference opponents by an average of 19.5 points. The most competitive game was Michigan’s eight-point victory over Western Michigan.
“I know people would probably say, ‘You’d like more nonconference games, games you can win by 20,’” Michigan head coach John Beilein said after Sunday’s 22-point win. “I don’t want ’em. We’re done with that.”
Indeed. Big Ten play resumes this week. The league’s worst teams — right now, Rutgers and Illinois — are still considered to be better than much of what Michigan has already faced.
That should serve to refocus the Wolverines. As dominant as they’ve been, their December version wasn’t as sharp as the previous month’s. Defense and slow starts became issues. Michigan’s lead was just five halfway through the second half against a Binghamton team that came to Crisler Center with a 4-9 record.
Eighteen straight games against schools with the Big Ten logo sewn on their jerseys leave little room to play down to the competition. Beilein addressed that on Sunday.
“I know that when Penn State comes here on Thursday, (our players) won’t be saying, ‘Yeah, coach is just speaking to speak again, (saying) that this team is terrific when I look and I see they’re 4-9.'”
Conference competition means teams more familiar with each other’s personnel and playbook, more hostile gyms, and more at stake.
Michigan’s goal was and is to compete for a Big Ten championship. Michigan is off to a good start, having already dominated Purdue at home and topped Northwestern by two on the road.
Four other Big Ten schools are also 2-0 in league play, including No. 8 Michigan State, one of seven Big Ten schools — counting No. 2 Michigan — ranked in one of the two major top-25 polls.
The Wolverines climbed higher, faster than many expected this season. The remarkable postseason success of the past two years can make one forget Michigan had become quite familiar with adversity this time of year.
This season, Beilein and his staff have had to deal with a roster accustomed to accolades. Beilein was asked on Sunday how Michigan has handled its rapid ascent.
“I think it’s so hard when you have that,” he said. “I think we handled it OK. I don’t know how you handle that.” He compared it to a baseball player getting called up to the big leagues and hitting five homers in his first week.
“It’s really hard to keep that going. I’d prefer the other. It did give us a heck of a résumé as we go into this important time of the year. I think we’re OK. There certainly were some times when they needed their memory jogged about how we got to that point — with incredible defense, incredible attention to detail, etc.”
Michigan certainly has areas to improve but the program’s list of new year’s resolutions is shorter and more manageable than in seasons past.
The Wolverines have mentioned repeatedly this month their preference for the Big Ten grind over the recent schedule that saw them play just one game a week.
They’ll get their wish starting Thursday, with a renewed emphasis on doing the daily tasks required to turn lofty goals into reality.
“If you compete for a Big Ten championship you can win the national championship,” Beilein said. “Just take it little bit by little as we go forward.”