Now it gets real. John Beilein's team made the most it possibly could out of a two-week Big Ten schedule equating to a pat on the hand. The punch in the nose follows, quickly and jarringly.
That's no to disrespect the good folks of Minnesota, Northwestern, Nebraska and Penn State. It's certainly not arguing that ANY Big Ten road win isn't a good one.
Minnesota nearly knocked off Michigan State in East Lansing, leading by 10 in the second half before losing in overtime. That effort puts a little more polish on Michigan's 63-60 win at Williams Arena to open the season.
The Wolverines scrambled to a one-point victory at Nebraska's new Pinnacle Bank Arena, but that narrow escape shouldn't be discounted. Nebraska beat Miami (Fla.) at home in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, and under Tim Miles, the Cornhuskers will record at least a couple of stunners at home this year. Mark it down.
All that said, Michigan ate dessert first in the Big Ten this year. Combine those two very good road wins with some compliant appearances by Northwestern and Penn State at Crisler Center so far, and it doesn't automatically spell conference contender.
But as Beilein adroitly observed, it sure trumps not doing so.
"Winning the first four games certainly beats the alternative," Beilein pointed out. "You know what's in front of you. You can play really well in this league and not win games. We're going to see packed houses. You can play really well and not come out with the results you want. You just have to keep pressing forward, because it's more about the end. How good are you going to be at the end of the season?"
He knows the next 10 days won't have the final say by any means, but that stretch surely provides a measuring stick for where the Wolverines are right now. At Wisconsin on Saturday, home against Iowa next Wednesday and at Michigan State the following Saturday might arguably stand as the toughest three-game stretch anywhere in the Big Ten this season.
Wisconsin, coming off its first loss of the season at Indiana, will be more than prepared to defend its Kohl Center dominance. The Badgers lose at home about as often as a CIA director with a Navy SEALs security deployment in his den.
The Wolverines haven't won in Bo Ryan's back yard since 1999, going 0-10 there since Ryan has been in place. During that span, Wisconsin stands 191-18 overall, for a .914 winning percentage.
So you're saying there's a chance? Sure, but
Iowa recently went into Columbus and won. Anyone dreaming of checking that one off just because it's at Crisler Center needs to check again.
And Michigan State in East Lansing? They're claiming all sorts of ailments in Izzoville, from cramps to fatigue to mononucleosis to bubonic plague. But when the Wolverines walk in the door, they'll catch a second wind and manage to uncramp long enough to pull on the brass knuckles.
Some thought Michigan might get a leg up in the Big Ten battles against the Badgers, Spartans, and other hand-to-hand combat teams of the league when modified officiating became the buzzwords of the land. No more clutch-and-grab, no more MMA moves in the paint, etc.
From observation of recent Big Ten battles, though, it's obvious the comfort zone has settled back somewhere around no blood (or bones sticking out) no foul. What HAS remained from the officiating modifications this year only hurts Beilein's crew. Charging calls became rarer than Ryan-Izzo lunch dates.
The Wolverines have to step it up defensively, and not in ways to which they've become accustomed. They also have to put a body on the high risers far more frequently on the defensive glass, to avoid becoming the Big Ten's most climbed-over team.
Basketball analyst Dan Dakich - certainly no Michigan hater, with a son on the roster - pointed out earlier this season the Wolverines need a little more "grit." They might be about to discover how much more they require.
Sophomore Mitch McGary supplied it, but he's gone. In his place, the unfolding duality of Morford (fifth-year senior Jordan Morgan and redshirt junior Jon Horford) has produced averages of 17.0 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, connecting on a combined 28 of 38 shots from the floor.
Those two, along with Glenn Robinson III, and even Caris LeVert and Nik Stauskas, will need to ramp up urgency on the boards and the ability to play through manhandling. Even if they do all of that well, they could wind up with a 5-2 start in Big Ten play, which wouldn't represent a disaster.
After that, U-M gets the relative breather of home games against Purdue and Nebraska, sandwiched around an always-lively trip to Indiana. Then it gets ugly again - at Iowa, at Ohio State, and home against the Badgers and Spartans.
So if you're breaking the next 10 games down by the SDW (Should Definitely Win) criterion, you come up with two clear-cut victories. That's a sobering thought, even though the Wolverines aren't going 2-8 between now and Feb. 24.
It IS time to tighten down defensively, toughen up accordingly, and play with the sort of resolve that could produce a 5-5 record. It says here, that keeps Michigan a serious contender for a top three spot in the league.
It might even put them in position to win the Big Ten, if the Badgers somehow stumble with a ridiculous schedule that has them skipping trips to Columbus and East Lansing. Either way, what happens over the next two fistfuls of games will say plenty about where the Wolverines are likely to be once March rolls around.
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