By Ashley Dunkak
ANN ARBOR (CBS DETROIT) – On a team with just one junior and one senior, maturity could easily be an issue. For Michigan, with 13 players in either their freshman or sophomore year, the opposite has been the case.
The Wolverines have already locked up a share of the Big Ten title, thanks to a win over the weekend, but no one is celebrating that achievement. This week is Michigan’s spring break, but as other students go home or travel during the week without classes, the players do not seem particularly distracted, head coach John Beilein said Wednesday.
‘They’ve been pretty focused no matter what,” Beilein said. “Last week was a rough week, and we, with the exception of those first 10 minutes against Purdue, we were pretty focused all week after a great game against Michigan State. We’re young, but I think we’re pretty mature in what it takes to win, and I think that’s really important. We have a maturity above our years, maybe, in what’s really important to winning.
“You see it in the winning teams,” Beilein added. “You see that they just get it, that they’re not – they don’t get too high, they don’t get too low, they just sort of play.”
For the Wolverines (21-7, 13-3 Big Ten), this year has been all about basketball, with shared purpose that not all teams experience. Sideshow stories have been few and far between, and the coach says that aspect has been vital.
“With the exception of Mitch [McGary]’s injury, there hasn’t been a lot of distractions, and that says to on-the-court, off-the-court type of things,” Beilein said. “We haven’t had big blow-ups in practice. They just have really stayed together and united through the whole thing.
“That’s kept us so that we’re coaching basketball, we’re coaching life, but we’re not – there’s not drama,” Beilein continued. “There’s not a lot of drama in the program. People are doing what they’re asked and they do it really well.”
Particularly with a young team, focus and cooperation and consistency are hardly sure bets, yet the Wolverines have not lost back-to-back games all season long. Whenever the team has stumbled, it has righted itself. More often than not, the group has been able to catch itself before it falls at all, often outlasting opponents by slim margins.
“It’s so competitive this year, and you look at all the wins we’ve had – I don’t think a lot of them were easy,” said senior Jordan Morgan. “It was a lot of fights. That says a lot about this team that we were willing to just come out and fight every night the way we have and close out so many close games.”
For Morgan, the way the young players have handled themselves has been admirable – again, hardly a foregone conclusion. Morgan himself expressed that the prospect of so much youth can be a little nerve-wracking.
“These guys, it’s amazing how mature they are on the court, doing those things, stepping up, making adjustments and being coachable,” Morgan said. “They’ve been great. You can get a little stressed out, or kind of a little worried, I would say, about how a young team’s going to respond in situations like that, but time and time again, these guys have come through, to the youngest players on our team like Derrick Walton [Jr.], just come through in the clutch when it mattered most.”
The composition of the team has quite a bit to do with the lack of distractions, Morgan said, and the tight-knit nature of the group is no accident.
“It starts with the way we recruit our teammates,” Morgan said. “We recruit people from great families, and we recruit their families. We recruit people that want to be here and want to focus and take care of business when they get here.
“Sometimes that means we pass up on some of the great recruits that are out there, but it’s more about who fits us as a program than about where people say they’re ranked and all that stuff,” Morgan added.
It certainly seems that strategy has paid off this season, with Michigan in position to win the Big Ten title outright for the first season since 1986, well before any of the players on this year’s team were even born. Given the youth of the team, that approach could pay dividends down the road as well.
Certainly, the Wolverines are on the cusp of a remarkable milestone for their program.
“It’s pretty significant, I believe,” Beilein said. “I’ve been coaching a long time and I’d have to think for a long time how many times you just win it outright, win the regular season championship. In this league it’s valued so much more than others, so it is a high priority for us right now.
“If we can do that,” Beilein added, “that will be a great accomplishment.”