This Michigan basketball team's season is likely headed toward a conclusion that many of recent memory have met—the Not Invited Tournament.
It's fun and spine-tingling to talk NCAA Tournament this time of year, and at 14-10 and 4-7 in the Big Ten—with a trio of solid road wins (although beating suddenly pitiful MSU looks worse and worse by the day)—the Wolverines are a strong finish away from entering the bubble conversation.
But for now, the more realistic topic to discuss should be just how much this young team has grown. Sunday's win at bubblicious Penn State was a perfect example. Used to be, when the Wolverines fell down double-digits on the road, it was game over. They lacked the fight, the toughness, the savvy to turn things around in hostile environments.
On Sunday, however, this group overcame not one, but two double-digit deficits. They didn't wake up until about 12:30 and found themselves, somehow, only down 11 points. A transition-fueled 14-0 run later, they were up three heading into halftime. They stuck to the pattern in the second half, looking lifeless in quickly falling down 10. But back they came, again, led by the inspired play of freshman Tim Hardaway Jr., whose facial expressions told the casual viewer, "I am not losing this game."
Final score: Michigan 65, Penn State 62
"I think it's experience, just that we've been in these situations a little bit," Coach John Beilein said. "They know now that first of all, it's not over when you go down nine (or 10 points).
"You can get back in a game very quickly."
A month ago, this concept seemed asinine when it came to this group of youngsters. Playing at Wisconsin in early January, the Wolverines put together a tough first half and led 28-26 at the break. However, when they quickly lost the lead early in the second half, I had no doubt that the advantage wouldn't change hands again. The Badgers, especially at home, were too tough.
That started a six-game losing streak, which included the Wolverines' two most distressing games of the year—uncompetitive road losses at middle-of-the-pack Big Ten teams Indiana and Northwestern. In the pair of L's, Michigan seemed lost on defense, unable to provide any resistance as the Hoosiers and Wildcats ran roughshod over them.
Many Michigan fans were ready to chalk up the season as a lost cause, and some were even calling for Beilein's head.
But then came the inspired effort at the Breslin Center—it's amazing what a rivalry can do—during which ESPN's cameras captured a red-faced Zack Novak yelling at his teammates in a huddle. Not only did the Wolverines want the game more than the Spartans, they proved it with grittiness on the court.
With two wins in their three games since, and the only loss at undefeated No. 1 Ohio State, the Wolverines have retained the momentum created by their first win in East Lansing in 14 years And now they get a second shot against the Hoosiers and Wildcats at home.
"To a degree, it's not as foreign as it was when all these kids walked on a away court for the first time," Beilein said of winning away from Crisler Arena.
Michigan hasn't found a secret formula, but they've become a much more confident lot that doesn't get flustered when the lead is lost and the crowd is in a frenzy. Darius Morris runs the point with aplomb. Veterans Stu Douglass and Zack Novak hit the big threes. And in perhaps the most positive individual development, Hardaway showed on Sunday that he's not afraid to be assertive in crucial situations.
After riding the bench with foul trouble the first 33 minutes, Hardaway made up for lost time with all 13 of his points in the final seven and a half minutes. He found Douglass for a three then drained consecutive contested threes from the wing to knot the score at 53; Morris put the Wolverines ahead for good just moments later.
"We're trying to find new ways to get him involved," Beilein said of Hardaway, who continued his offensive explosion by finding Jordan Morgan off a pick-and-roll for a thunderous dunk and then made a layup on the next possession to push Michigan's lead to five with one minute, 39 seconds left. That was, just about, all she wrote.
These are good signs. Of course, they shouldn't entirely overshadow the ugly, which is that at times the Wolverines look completely out of sorts on offense (example: the first 10 minutes Sunday) and still struggle on the defensive end.
And, no, this isn't an NCAA Tournament team. They would need at least a 5-2 record the rest of the way and a pair of wins in the Big Ten tournament to reach the Dance. I don't see that happening.
The Wolverines, though, are making strides. Perhaps most significantly, a road deficit no longer automatically equates to a road loss.
In other words, hold that clicker steady. You don't want to miss another Michigan comeback.