December 16, 2013

Borton's Blog: Boards of education

We have no video evidence of this, but trust us. Deep into the Arizona-Michigan game video, when the Wildcats were going up and over the Wolverines on the boards and getting the ball in their "sweet spots," as John Beilein observed, somebody noticed.

Actually, several somebodies noticed. Tom Izzo nudged Adreian Payne in the ribs (picture Payne sitting, Izzo standing for believability purposes here) and said: "See. That's it. That's how we beat these guys."

Bo Ryan spoke to a room full of such no-name players that even he doesn't know their names, and said: "Just do what you do. These guys won't stand a chance."

From Iowa City to Happy Valley and back, the word spreads. Michigan can't play it rough. Michigan can't rebound. For all its talent, they'll bow to toughness.

That's an overreaction, of course. Through 10 games, the Wolverines were a plus-four in the rebounding margin department, tied with MSU for fourth in the league. They'd fought off a bigger, longer, Florida State squad to win a difficult game in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. Their best big man, Mitch McGary, is still playing himself into shape and went just 22 minutes in the Arizona game.

Plus, Arizona is one of the better rebounding teams in the nation, featuring interchangeable big men coming in waves. At the same time, a 37-24 edge on the boards stands out, especially since 17 offensive rebounds gave the Wildcats just enough extra chances to steal one at Crisler Center.

Nobody's panicking in the Michigan coaches' offices. They're just going to work, devising ways to turn a two-point loss to the nation's No. 1 team into two-point wins in January and February.

Beilein said it himself. Michigan needs to get a little tougher, mentally and physically. It needs to show more intensity and purpose when putting a body on opponents in keeping them off the offensive glass.

The Wolverines need to defend better down the stretch. The coaches have to get them there, by tinkering and toughening up. That's their job, and they've done it pretty well over the past few seasons.

"It's what our coaches love doing; getting us from this hurdle over the next hurdle," Beilein said after the 72-70 loss to Arizona. "There are plenty of things to grow from."

Of course, he'd much rather be growing from a 72-70 win today. It looked like Michigan could at least pull that off, after clawing to a nine-point lead at the half inside a rollicking Crisler Center.

But it wasn't meant to be. Michigan just isn't there yet.

So two feelings came out of the loss, equally valid. Veteran Jon Horford voiced the frustration side, passionately urging better box-outs, defensive stops, rising up to meet the challenge down the stretch. Channeling his inner Lloyd Carr, Horford basically repeated an old theme: Winning is about finishing.

Over in another corner of the room, sophomore Nik Stauskas assured that Michigan is far from finished. He concurred on the basics: getting tougher down the stretch, rebounding, boxing out.

But Stauskas added a not-so-fast observation that can't be easily dismissed. This wasn't some collection of University of Phoenix on-line basketball wannabes that showed up at Crisler. And the Wolverines didn't exactly get left out in the desert.

"They're the No. 1 team in the country, and it's not like they blew us out of the water today," Stauskas offered. "It was a two-point game, and we had them. We can't hang our heads low. We have to be confident and continue to work. Down the stretch of the season, I think we're going to win those games."

The proof is in the pummeling, of course, one way or another. But to a man, the Wolverines were in agreement about why they let the big one get away, and what they need to do to start reeling them in. That counts for something, when the biggest games are a good ways down the road.

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