Madison, Wis. — Through the first 17 games, the Wolverines were the one delivering the knockout blows.
No. 2 Michigan finally felt what it’s like to be on the receiving end when it was dropped to the mat by Wisconsin in a 64-54 loss at the Kohl Center.
For Michigan coach John Beilein, getting knocked down and suffering a humbling defeat isn’t the worst thing that could happen.
As the win streak raged on, there were some tough times finding faults and pushing the team. But Saturday’s contest will certainly provide its share of lessons.
“I think we had some film sessions that we realized we didn’t play well, but it doesn’t dig in like this will,” Beilein said. “But it wasn’t exactly easy when you’re trying to get your guys to run because you’re mad at them after they just beat Northwestern by 20 points. That’s hard to do as a coach, so we didn’t do it. We’re going to learn from it. We’ve got a lot of weaknesses and we’ve got to shore them up.”
On a day where Michigan’s offense as whole was sloppy and stagnant — shooting 27.8 percent on 3-pointers (5-for-18), 45.5 percent on free throws (5-for-11) and 40.7 percent from the field (22-for-54) — one area that stood out was team’s late-game execution and shot selection.
Even with leading scorers redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews and freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis combining for five points on 2-for-10 shooting — well below the roughly 30 points the duo averaged together — the Wolverines twice made it a one-possession game and pulled within three points in the final 2 minutes, 30 seconds.
Yet, Michigan (17-1, 6-1 Big Ten) did itself no favors in crunch time. The Wolverines missed six of their final eight shots in the game, with their last six attempts all coming from 3-point range. Instead of trying to get a smart shot, they got caught up trying to get it all back with a big bucket.
“I didn’t want to lose, but losses along the way always help, right?” Beilein said. “Especially this one where we didn’t take some really good shots down the stretch. Now they’ll see it. They said, ‘I wanted it, man. I was going to win it for the guys.’ No, those are not good plays down the stretch.
“If we had already gone through that once, it might’ve helped us. But maybe we took a great shot and it went in and out and we still lose. There’s carryover that’s always positive from a loss, but what’s best is it sits in there tougher after a loss.”
Beilein noted it was “sort of really quiet” in the locker room because Michigan wasn’t singing the fight song after a game for just the second time in 347 days.
And as rare as that postgame scene has been for the Wolverines, so was Saturday’s late-game finish. Prior to the Madison trip, 15 of Michigan’s 17 wins came by double digits, with the closing minutes merely serving as a formality.
It was also just the second time this season Michigan was in a situation that came down to the final few possessions. The first was at Northwestern over a month ago when Michigan dodged a 3-point bullet at the buzzer. But even then, the Wolverines were on top and were able to lean on their defense to hang on despite turning the ball over twice in the final 1:20.
Michigan, for the time all year, was on the other side of it against Wisconsin needing to execute on both ends to get stops and buckets while playing from behind.
“It’s just experience,” sophomore guard Jordan Poole said. “It was only the Northwestern game we went down to the wire like this. So what shots you can take, what shots you can’t, clock management, just little things like that you won’t be able to see in a game if you end up winning by eight, nine or 10.
“The Big Ten is a good conference and you play really good teams night in and night out. We’re going to be in situations like this more, so being able to learn now rather than later is huge.”
The loss will also provide other teaching moments, like cutting down on the careless turnovers in transition Beilein couldn’t explain, Brazdeikis not letting foul trouble affect his game and the need for Matthews to be more efficient on offense.
And for the first time in a long time, Michigan will have to regroup, get back up and move forward just like it did when it was ripping off win after win.
“I think the coaches did a really good job of just focusing game by game,” Poole said. “We never looked at it, ‘We’re 16-0, we’re 15-0, we’re 14-0.’ We just focused on the next game that’s ahead of us and put the last game behind us. I feel like that’s what we’re going to do with this game. We’re going to learn and stick to the same routine that we normally do. We just had a different outcome.”