They defended (word used loosely) the ball screen at times as though they'd never seen it before. They looked like a team still stinging from a last second, halfcourt shot that eventually beat them at Wisconsin, and hung over from the hangover, a blowout loss at Michigan State Tuesday night. And yet Michigan's young basketball team still has all of its goals in front of it heading into a week off following a 79-71 win over Penn State.
At the same time, the Wolverines are starting to resemble last year's team down the stretch - playing on tired legs, lacking confidence and, too often, a one-man show with sophomore point guard Trey Burke handling the scoring load (29 points), adding five assists against no turnovers.
The way they played Sunday, they probably wouldn't have won any of the remaining games on the schedule.
"It's like a déjà vu of our Nebraska game, when they came in here and we had some adversity in the game," head coach John Beilein said. "We had to battle through it, we had to make foul shots and do some things - frankly, stuff that we probably need this time from the standpoint that last week was such a difficult week for our kids - just to try to bounce back."
They fell behind by nine, consistently giving up the paint and getting outrebounded, outfought for loose balls. A sellout crowd anxious to celebrate and relax following the Crisler Center rededication ceremony instead was on pins and needles throughout, watching the winless (in the conference) Nittany Lions make run after run when U-M seemed primed to blow it open.
Some left wondering if U-M had peaked too soon, or if they'd win another game this year.
In truth, this one followed the Big Ten script. All five of the Big Ten's contenders have struggled with lesser opponents this year, some at home, some on the road. Those lamenting the tight ones early in the year - Michigan State, for one, which seems to have found its groove but has struggled in a number of games - barely remember them now.
Others that looked like contenders have come back to reality, like Ohio State, which was blown out at Wisconsin Sunday and now has five conference losses with a handful of tough games remaining. The Badgers are the only remaining contender with a more favorable slate than U-M, which played the toughest scheduled through 12 games and should have emerged 9-3.
Lest we forget, the Wolverines are still 22-4 and only two games back in the Big Ten race and get the two conference leaders, Michigan State and Indiana, at home.
"We just needed to win any way possible - one point, two points, 33 points, it didn't make a difference," Beilein said. "We just needed a 'W,' and to do it the way we did was a silver lining."
They sloshed one out, making tough shots while giving up easy counters on the other end and closing it out with free throws (four each from Burke and Glenn Robinson III (21 points, 10 rebounds). It wasn't pretty, but it wasn't all bad, either. Robinson III found his groove, and freshman Nik Stauskas rallied for 18 points after missing his first three triples, all good looks.
They'll get more rest this week before Sunday's game with Illinois, a chance to get their legs back.
"We'll get healthy [Monday], have a little mini-camp Tuesday and Wednesday then have another day off Thursday for most of our guys," Beilein said. "That way, we get guys two days of rest this week."
That will give players like redshirt junior big man Jordan Morgan, nursing an ankle injury that still slowed him Sunday, time to recover, and the freshmen a chance to get their second wind.
There's still plenty of talent and enough time to do some special things with the nation's third-youngest team, after all, and plenty incentive to counterpunch against two of the teams (MSU and Indiana) that dealt them two of their losses this year.
"We haven't lost our swagger," Stauskas insisted.
We'll find out soon enough.