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January 13, 2014

U-M gains confidence with fast Big Ten start

A month ago, coming off a close-but-no-cigar loss to No. 1 Arizona, the Michigan basketball team was standing at 6-4 and looking for answers.

The Wolverines had blazed through some opponents, coasting to easy victories on high-flying transition offense and opportunistic shooting. They had also fallen short in a few too many games, failing to close out in the final minutes of losses to Iowa State, Charlotte and Arizona.

Smash-cut to Monday afternoon, and the team's confidence is soaring. Since the loss to the top-ranked Wildcats, Michigan has been on a tear, winning its last five games, including a 68-65 win over Stanford in Brooklyn, N.Y. and a perfect 3-0 record in conference games.

The problems that had plagued the Wolverines in the early goings - winning away from Crisler Arena and finishing in close games - have been wiped away by hard-nosed efforts in faraway places.

Michigan kicked off Big Ten play with a 63-60 win at Minnesota and escaped a game at up-and-coming Nebraska, 71-70 Thursday night. In a rough-and-tumble year in the Big Ten, the Wolverines are one of just three teams in the conference that hasn't suffered a loss in the first few weeks of conference play.

"That is definitely important," sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III said. "We have a lot of confidence rolling right now. … The nonconference season didn't go as planned, but we have gotten better every day. We have been preparing really well. We have stepped out energy up, and that brings a lot of confidence."

And after starting the season 2-3 in games away from Ann Arbor, the team has one its last three road games.

"Being a young team, knowing we can go on the road and pull out a tough win like that in a one-possession game, it boosts our confidence," freshman point guard Derrick Walton said. "We know each one of us is out there playing for each other to get a win.

"The early road games helped me as a freshman to know what kinds of arenas we'd play in and how load it can be. The adversity throughout the season of playing on the road. Those early road games really helped, going into Big Ten.

Robinson says the team's seemingly newfound swagger has been building for a while now. He points to the Wolverines' trip to the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic as the biggest factor.

Although Michigan lost the title game of that tournament to Charlotte, 63-61, and lost games against Duke and Arizona in the following weeks, the trip gave them a chance to get to know one another.

"The Puerto Rico trip was what kind of turned this team around, he said. "It gave us a lot of bonding experiences. We didn't really know each other as well as we do now, after that trip."

That close-knit bond has helped the team eke out its last two road wins.

In the waning seconds of the Wolverines' one-point win at Nebraska, Robinson had a simple message for his teammates: "I believe in you guys," he told them. "We can do this."

"Something like that can loosen everyone up, especially with one or two freshmen on the court," Robinson said. "That is something I have focused on and maybe one of the reasons I am having more success. The game has slowed down a little for me, and I'm more comfortable now. I'm having more fun out there, and I think that is when I tend to play my best basketball. When I'm having fun, like last game. And it worked well.

"Talking to my old high school coach a few weeks ago, he said, 'It doesn't look like you're having much fun. Just try to smile more and see if that helps.' I have been trying that, but it also comes with the team chemistry we have. We have a few inside jokes that we might say to each other to make each other laugh, just to loosen up everybody."

Right now, the confidence, togetherness and swagger is on Michigan's side.

And the Wolverines will need it. After Tuesday night's visit from Penn State, they enter a brutal stretch of games: at Wisconsin Jan. 18, vs. Iowa Jan. 22 and at Michigan State Jan. 25.

"We could be 1-2 and be the exact same team," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "Somebody misses a foul shot, that ball gets tipped in at Nebraska, and we're still the same team. But we've got a little more bounce in our step, because we're winning.

"The biggest reality, and we learned it the good way, is the detail we [need] in last-second situations, valuing every possession. They understand it now. It is a possession-by-possession game, and you can't take possessions off, offensively or defensively, with bad turnovers, poor stance or not talking. They realize that this is the league now. There's going to be a lot of last-second games."


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