Here’s the thing about Michigan’s Tuesday night loss to Michigan State: Pretty much everyone (save for the Vegas oddsmakers, for some reason), saw it coming.
The Wolverines were on game No. 4 of arguably the toughest four-game stretch any team in the country will face all year — at Indiana, Ohio State at home, at Wisconsin, at MSU. And they were coming off back-to-back physical overtime contests, the latter of which was a heartbreaking defeat in Madison that only came after Ben Brust hit a half-court heave at the end of regulation.
Michigan State, meanwhile, not only entered Tuesday playing some of its best basketball of the season, it was coming off a rather tame three-game run, by Big Ten standards — Illinois and struggling Minnesota at home, and a road trip to Purdue.
The Spartans had this game circled on their calendars as the one where they announced their presence to the nation. They wanted it. They needed it, both for a leg up in this rivalry and for their chances at a Big Ten title.
All of those factors combined to create what Tom Izzo called “a perfect storm” after the Spartans’ emphatic 75-52 win.
This one will hurt Michigan. It should hurt. But it’s far from the knockout punch it might feel like right now.
The best news for the Wolverines now is that the schedule finally provides a break. John Beilein’s fatigued and battered club plays just two games over the next 12 days and has only three more outings left in all of February. And those three are all extremely winnable: a home-and-home vs. Penn State and a visit from Illinois.
This is exactly what this team needs right now — and that goes double for struggling freshmen Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas, as well as hobbling center Jordan Morgan.
Maybe Michigan is not the juggernaut it seemed when it raced out to a 20-1 start after opening with 16 straight wins. But this team also is nowhere near as incompetent as it showed in East Lansing.
Even on their best night, beating Indiana in Bloomington or knocking off Michigan State in East Lansing would have proven a tough task. Michigan only showed up in stretches against the Hoosiers and rolled over totally on Tuesday.
The Wolverines happily would have taken a 2-2 mark during the four-game gauntlet that they just endured. And had it not been for Brust’s heroics, that’s exactly what they would have finished.
Three losses in four games, culminating in an embarrassing blowout defeat, suddenly cloud the outlook. But the Big Ten title is still in reach (even if an outright crown is a long shot), thanks to looming rematches with both Indiana and Michigan State. So, too, is a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Turning things around will not be easy for Michigan, even with Penn State next on the schedule. The Wolverines need more consistent help for Trey Burke, better rebounding and improved defense, for starters — all of which will require improve physical efforts and greater mental commitment.
This is a gut check for this roster. Duke, which may yet wind up with the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed, recently took a similar loss to Michigan’s East Lansing debacle. The Blue Devils have bounced back with five straight wins, including three over teams in the tournament mix.
Does Michigan have enough fortitude to respond to their humiliation in kind?
We likely won’t know that answer for a couple of weeks. The schedule, though, sets up for Michigan to come storming back from this one — and that chance is all the Wolverines can ask for after the completion of a disappointing two weeks.