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Look out, Michigan already has its championship mindset

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Wednesday was just one of those nights for Michigan. The kind of night where the Wolverines broke out of their shooting slump at the exact right moment. Where Michigan seemed to make every key play that needed to be made, had the sold-out crowd behind it for all of them and just had one of the best teams in the country’s number.

“I feel like I’ve done the worst job with this team that I’ve done in 31 years,” North Carolina coach and three-time national title-winner Roy Williams said after the game. “(Michigan) got tougher and made tough plays. It’s the most frustrated I’ve ever been.”

For Michigan, it was the kind of game where Charles Matthews was hitting his mid-range floaters, where Eli Brooks was downing clutch shots, where Jon Teske was diving after loose balls, Jordan Poole was bursting out of his slump and Ignas Brazdeikis looked like an All-American.

It was the kind of night the Wolverines have seen before, but rarely in November. At a time of the year where teams are tinkering, meshing together and growing, Michigan has instead approached every game like there’s a title on the line.

That’s no coincidence or fluke. And the seven consecutive blowouts and marquee wins haven’t been flukes, either.

“We went on a good run at the end of last year,” Matthews said. “And we basically said, let’s not wait until the end of the year to be special.”

Added Brazdeikis: “It felt really good, but we can’t really dwell on this victory. This is just a November win, and it’s only the beginning. It shows us where we’re at, but where we need to improve, too.”

While humility is a common post-game approach, Wednesday wasn’t any other night. With two Final Four appearances and 92 wins in the last three seasons, the Tar Heels are one of the hottest programs in the nation. Just a year ago, North Carolina sent the Wolverines home from Chapel Hill with their tails between their legs. Wednesday was a special moment for Michigan, whether it wants to admit as much or not.

But those moments have become increasingly common. This season, Michigan has now won all seven of its games by at least 17 points. Not one opponent has hit 40 percent of their shots, only two teams have exceeded 55 points and, so far, the Tar Heels are the only team to exceed 0.90 points per possession.

That’s phenomenal, and worth celebrating. But perhaps Matthews exemplified Michigan’s mindset best after the game, when he was asked about the Wolverines holding the Tar Heels to 67 points. Matthews responded by asking reporters what Michigan typically holds opponents to this season. The answer was a nation-leading 48.3 points per game.

“See? We didn’t do that well defensively. We could’ve done better,” the team captain responded with a serious look. “They’re a great team, and we’ve just got to continue to get better.”

“On to the next one.”

In winning 21 of its last 22 games dating back to last season, including 16 by double-digits and 11 against 2018 NCAA Tournament teams, Michigan has showcased an exceptional amount of focus. The Wolverines will celebrate, just as they did after dunks and 3-pointers and blocks Wednesday night, but are able to buckle back in immediately whether the situation is good or bad.

That’s why Michigan didn’t flinch when it fell behind by 10 points early to North Carolina, and why the Wolverines didn’t let up in the second half until they were up 22 points in the second half.

Michigan operates moment by moment as well as any team in the country, and is already able to bring a focus many teams reserve for March to its early stretch of non-conference games.

“I think that’s what’s allowing us to get out to this good start,” Matthews said. “We just continue to take everything day by day, practice by practice. We’ve got a phrase that says ‘Keep chopping wood, chop wood, carry water and just keep building these houses brick by brick.’

“Championships aren’t won in November. We’re trying to win a national championship.”

Entering the season, a national championship might have seemed like a lofty goal for Michigan. The Wolverines played extraordinary last spring, but had some help en route to the title game, and lost three of their top four players from that team.

But the next team to contend with Michigan for two halves will be the first. And thanks to the Wolverines’ championship mindset, they’re as in the title conversation as ever before.

“When we do that as a team, and we’re able to lock in on the defensive end and be aggressive on the offensive end on every possession,” Poole said. “I feel like we’re a tough team to beat.”

Whether it was one of those nights or just another night, that much was clear Wednesday.

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