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January 14, 2014

Wolverines ready for brutal Big Ten stretch

The easy part of the hard part is over. Now, it's time to really find out what this Michigan basketball team is made of.

After a brutal slate of nonconference games that saw them fall to 6-4, the Wolverines opened the Big Ten season with a manageable stretch of games before things took a drastic turn toward the big time.

--Box Score: Michigan 80, Penn State 67--

And after Tuesday night's 80-67 win over Penn State, Michigan capped that run with a perfect 4-0 record to begin conference play. Just two Big Ten teams have escaped the first few weeks of conference play without a blemish (Michigan State is also 4-0).

The Wolverines toppled Minnesota and Nebraska on the road and Northwestern and Penn State at home. Those four teams have a combined 3-12 record in Big Ten play so far.

"We're a young team, so 4-0 is a big boost to our confidence," freshman point guard Derrick Walton, Jr. said. "But we're not going to make this the high of our season. We're going to keep getting better each day."

You can only control what you can control. Scheduling isn't one of those things, but winning basketball games certainly is. And the Wolverines have done that so far.

"It's definitely important to start 4-0," sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III said. "It's a great honor to have right now, but we have to keep trying to make the most out of each opportunity and each possession. In the Big Ten, almost every game is going to come down to the wire.

"Every team in the Big Ten is a challenge. We're taking it game-by-game. Of course, Wisconsin, Michigan State, those guys are elite-level teams, just like the teams we faced earlier. We have to come out with the same mindset. Have the energy we did at the end of the Nebraska game from the tip. If we can come out with that type of energy, we'll be all right."

With the first four out of the way, life gets much harder for the Wolverines from here on out.

Michigan plays at Wisconsin Saturday afternoon, a road trip the team hasn't come home from with a win since 1999. Then resurgent Iowa comes to Ann Arbor next Wednesday, before the Wolverines travel to Michigan State Saturday, Jan. 25.

"It's going to be a very difficult stretch," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "We see it every year. There are going to be three or four games that will just be very difficult. If you can get wins in any of those games, it's a big step."

Beilein has preached a game-by-game outlook throughout the season, and the Wolverines won't have any trouble focusing on the upcoming task at hand in Madison.

Michigan was on the verge of snapping its long-standing losing skid at Wisconsin last year, before Ben Brust hit a half-court miracle to send the game into overtime, where the Badgers prevailed, 65-62.

Redshirt junior forward Jon Horford said, "There will be no pregame speech needed" for Saturday's game.

"It's going to be a big game for us," added sophomore guard Nik Stauskas. "Road wins come not very often in the Big Ten. You saw that last year. We thought we had them at their place, and they came back. We still have a bad taste in our mouths from that game. We're going to be hungry for that one."

But, for the time being, the Wolverines are exactly where they want to be: undefeated in conference play and riding a wave of offensive confidence that should help them play through the distractions of the raucous road environments ahead of them.

"It's huge to be 4-0 right now," Horford said. "You obviously always want to win all your games. People will say, 'You guys are playing middle-of-the-pack teams, but the teams we played were really good teams. Looking forward, we have to bring the same sort of intensity and confidence, and we can play with anybody.

"I don't look at it like they're defining moments until the season is over, but winning the first four games certainly beats the alternative," added Beilein. "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?"


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