January 14, 2013

Borton's Blog: The first punch

"At some point, those guys are going to get punched in the mouth." You kept hearing it, and on Sunday afternoon, John Beilein's Wolverines felt it.

They got punched in the mouth, and then some. They didn't come out like deer in the headlights while falling behind, 29-8, in Columbus. They came out like deer splitting apart on the grill of an oncoming semi.

They treated the basketball like toxic waste, shot like they'd switched dominant hands, and defended like Spain's finest matadors. They looked plaintively toward the officials for help, and the striped shirt boys stared back and shrugged.

In the process, the Wolverines probably grew up more than in the first 16 games combined. Welcome to the Big Ten, fellas.

This is the place where you get into good defensive position, then a Buckeye digs a massive wing into your side, hooks around you and scores easily. The crowd goes wild, and the whistles stay silent.

You drive to the bucket yourself, and get absolutely clotheslined. On the street, it's an assault. In this building, it's play on. The crowd goes wild, and the whistles stay silent.

This isn't a protest against horrific, venue-honoring officiating costing Michigan a chance to be 17-0 and No. 1 in the nation. It's simply recognition of reality - the reality for anyone going on the road in the Big Ten.

Is OSU's Aaron Craft one of the best one-on-one defenders around? Yes. Doesn't he get away with more holding than any three Big Ten offensive linemen combined? Yes. Does the latter matter, when it's time to win a road game in the conference?

No.

It ain't intramurals, brother. And it ain't Slippery Rock in Crisler.

The best aspect of Michigan's first loss of the season involved the young Wolverines realizing those facts, and responding. For 13 minutes, they acted like they weren't ready for the bright lights, like they didn't belong on the same floor as Ohio State.

For the rest of the game, they showed they could absorb a punch and hit back. They chopped the margin to 12 at halftime, with the least heralded of Michigan's freshmen, Spike Albrecht, coming on to provide a steadying (and scoring) hand.

They kept fighting, encouraging the head coach who acknowledged this could have turned into a 30-point blowout. Eventually, they tied the game, and one of the younger teams around proved to be growing up pretty quickly.

In the end, a few more mistakes and ill-considered shots, along with a Trey Burke three-pointer that rattled in then malevolently back out to the delight and relief of more than 18,000, did the Wolverines in. They'd lost, 56-53, tasting the misery of a missed opportunity for the first time all season, in a place where sympathy for anything Michigan remains incongruous as hearing Handel in a hog barn.

It doesn't get any easier this week. The Wolverines travel to the barn in Minnesota, where Tubby Smith and his fattened-up Gophers aren't sitting around shedding tears over Michigan's misfire with a chance at No. 1.

No, the Gophers - probably a better team than Ohio State - are figuring to make it an 0-2 streak for Michigan. They reckon the Buckeyes loosened a few teeth, and they might as well knock 'em out.

The Wolverines got punched in the mouth, all right. But they spat blood and played on, even in the course of that first real jolt of Big Ten road reality. Now they have to demonstrate they can do it for 40 minutes, not 25, and that youth doesn't preclude rapid growth.


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