Win over UCLA helps Michigan's mindset on and off court
NEW YORK -- It was just one game, but it was against one of the most famous programs on one of the most famous stages.
Michigan's 55-52 win over No. 4 UCLA on Thursday night may have given a reprieve, for two hours at least, to a Wolverine State that has been gripped by melancholy due to a crumbling economy, the auto industry and the university's highest-profile athletic program -- a 3-8 football team that is headed for its worst season as it prepares for its rivalry game Saturday at Ohio State.
"Whether it was a need or not, I don't know, but it really helps,'' said second-year Michigan coach John Beilein. "We're all following the [auto industry bailout] meetings in Washington.
"This is a very proud state and the auto industry is trying to fix itself. There are a lot of troubled people in Michigan and a lot of them have roots in the auto industry. I'm hoping a lot of people stayed up late to watch this game and went to bed with a smile on their face.''
The mood on the Michigan campus this fall has been grim. It's apparently unavoidable when the football team is reeling.
"Being in Ann Arbor, seeing how the atmosphere has taken hold of the football team, that's why this is a win for the city of Ann Arbor,'' said Michigan junior DeShawn Sims, who fittingly scored the clinching basket on a Beilein designed backdoor cut to put the Wolverines up 53-49 with 28 seconds left.
"We really needed this,'' Sims said. "Basketball has a rich tradition at Michigan, but it's about getting the people out. The fans are loyal if you win. UCLA and Duke have incredible fan bases. We want to bring that back to Ann Arbor by doing what we have to do to win.''
No one on the basketball team understands how much a losing football season can dominate the mood of the athletic department better than Brian Townsend. The Wolverines' director of basketball operations was an outside linebacker on the football team from 1988-91. He later coached boys basketball at Ann Arbor's Pioneer High School for six years. He joined Beilein when the former Mountaineers coach arrived last season to replace Tommy Amaker.
"We are rebuilding and we will get this back. It took us a year,'' Townsend said. "We feel [football coach] Rich [Rodriguez] is going to do the same thing next year. It's a tough year right now, but everyone just has to show patience.
"It's tough, Michigan fans haven't seen this type of losing in the last couple of months, not seen that at all. We're changing the mindset.''
This really shouldn't be a shock. Beilein is doing what he does best: creating a winning attitude through his fervent fundamentals, his 1-3-1 zone and his consistent program development that has led to NCAA tournament appearances at every stop from Canisius to Richmond to West Virginia.
The Wolverines shot 61.9 percent in the second half and forced UCLA into countless frustrating possessions (the Bruins shot 33 percent in the second half and committed a total of 17 turnovers). Michigan relied on reacting to the openings to slice through the Bruins' interior. And, just like at West Virginia, Beilein has found another unassuming guard who can cause fits by making key 3s. This time his name is Stu Douglass, a freshman who made 2-of-3 from outside the arc against the Bruins.
Sophomore guard Manny Harris averaged 28 points in the first two games. But against UCLA's defense that wasn't going to fly. So Harris worked to score 15 by staying within a Beilein system that has been so effective once everyone understands how the coach wants it to run.
"We've learned how to play after drilling it day after day after day,'' Sims said. "It's much easier now than it was last year.''
Michigan's Thursday-night moment won't last long if the Wolverines can't sustain the success. They get Duke on Friday night in the 2K Sports Classic championship game (ESPN2, 7:30 p.m. ET), the first of two games against the Blue Devils in two weeks. The two teams have a game scheduled for Dec. 6 in Ann Arbor.
"We're the only team in the world that is celebrating playing Duke twice in two weeks,'' Beilein said. "Time will tell if this is any kind of signature win. This was a great thing. But this was November basketball. It wasn't a handsome game. But if we stay with people, we can beat anyone.''
The makeup of the Big Ten this season makes it plausible that Michigan can be a factor near the top, where only Michigan State and Purdue should be counted on as locks to compete for the title.
That means the futility that has been Michigan basketball for the past decade could end. The Wolverines last went to the NCAAs in 1998, and that appearance isn't recognized any longer since the two tournament games were vacated due to violations.
The cloud of NCAA suspicion over the Fab Five, the investigations, the sanctions and then the subsequent mediocrity has made Michigan drift into irrelevance. Beating UCLA may go a long way toward pulling Michigan out of that abyss -- especially if it helps lead the Wolverines toward an NCAA bid in March.
"When we were at West Virginia or Richmond, we had little wins here and there and it got people excited,'' Beilein said. "I'm hoping this will do that after what has been a rough year. These little things here and there make a big difference for the psyche of all the Michigan fans all over the world.''
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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