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Thursday, March 7, 2013
Two games, four days

By Jordan Brenner
ESPN The Magazine

This is an extended version of a story that appears in ESPN The Magazine's March 18 One Day One Game issue. Subscribe today!

ABOVE THE GRUMBLING and tough talk, the frustration and anger, a single voice emerges. "We've got a turnaround game on Tuesday," says Michigan's Trey Burke. "Short memories."

That's easier said than done. Despite the urging of the sophomore point guard, it's tough to move on quickly from a night like this. Michigan arrived in Indiana on Feb. 1 ranked first in the nation -- and left Assembly Hall third. And now, as the Wolverines slump into chairs in the austere visitors locker room and swear vengeance for the return match on March 10, they must deal with the aftermath of an 81-73 loss. They don't have much experience in this area; they've lost only one prior game this season.

It's hard to imagine that this same setting was a cauldron of confidence just three hours earlier. In his pregame speech, assistant coach Bacari Alexander held up a rock and said it symbolized Michigan's unyielding strength. Then he pulled out an egg, marked with the IU logo. "Our opponent, they think they're solid, too," Alexander said. "But I see them more like an egg -- hard on the exterior, but once you break through, what do you get?"

"Yolk!" the players replied.

"So what happens when the rock and the egg meet? It looks like this, guys!" And with that, Alexander cracked the egg and Michigan stormed out of the locker room.

But Indiana, it turned out, would not crack at all. And now head coach John Beilein faces a new challenge. In less than 72 hours, his Wolverines will host another top-10 opponent, Ohio State, the only other team to beat them this season. In that short time, he must study the Indiana game with his players to help them learn key lessons, while simultaneously figuring out how to get them past the psychological effects of the defeat. He must prepare his players for the Buckeyes' personnel and strategy. He must tune their bodies and minds for another huge game, this time at home against their fiercest rival.

This type of turnaround, with so much to accomplish in so little time, is a hallmark of March. In the conference and NCAA tournaments, prep time is even shorter and the opponents are less familiar. But lessons can be drawn from an experience like Michigan's. So to see how the Wolverines would handle the transition from Indiana to Ohio State and all the hurdles that come with two games in four days, The Mag spent that time with the team.

How Beilein would choose to address his team following the Indiana loss would set the tone for the next few days. So, as he stands before his team in the locker room, he speaks with a clear, calm voice. "The big message is we learned a whole lot and we've got to get back off the deck," Beilein says, sounding surprisingly positive. "If we learn more from this game, we can do anything we want to do. We're going to get this out of our system and we have a bigger game Tuesday with Ohio State. You come to the gym, we'll keep making you better. But we're damn good right now -- don't you forget it. I can't wait to review this with you tomorrow."


Sun., Feb. 3, 12:28 a.m.
Tomorrow is still a long way off. The Wolverines duck their heads as they make their way down the narrow aisle of their charter 727 for the quick flight from Bloomington, Ind., to Detroit. There, they will board a bus to Ann Arbor, Mich. Their heads won't hit their pillows until 3 a.m. under the best of circumstances, and already things aren't going according to plan.

As if the loss doesn't sting enough, senior Brandon Verlinden, one of three head managers, is seated with six stitches in his head. As he loaded the team's luggage onto the bus outside Assembly Hall, he scraped his scalp on the cargo door. Blood gushing, he ended up getting patched up in Indiana's locker room, where Hoosiers coach Tom Crean helped keep him calm.

A few rows behind him, senior guard Matt Vogrich is breathing, which is no small feat. Digging into a piece of cheesecake on the bus, he suddenly realized that the crust was made from granola. Vogrich has a serious nut allergy, which left athletic trainer John DoRosario feverishly searching for an EpiPen as Vogrich's face grew red and swollen.

Medical drama aside, the mood is subdued. No one is sulking as much as the combination of fatigue and disappointment has left the players with little energy. Only the discordant tunes seeping out of various Beats by Dre headphones break the silence aboard the plane. For the players, the first step toward recovery is simply getting home. But for Beilein, there is already work to do, as he leans in toward his laptop. At most schools, the assistant coaches cut film, but as the head of a program that watches as much video as anyone in the country, Beilein prefers the DIY approach. "That's how I learn," Beilein says, "I had the game cut already by the time I landed. Still got to church at 9, too."

The six-year Michigan coach says he learned long ago not to make judgments until after he has seen the film. That's what kept him upbeat in the locker room. "After watching the game, I'm glad I chose that approach," he says. "Because there were very correctable things that we just need experience to correct. They weren't effort areas. We played hard. Very hard."


Sun., Feb. 3, 3:34 p.m.
Beilein may be able to move past the Indiana loss, but certain details still concern him. Chief among them is this stat: Burke and junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. took 40 of the team's 70 shots. Earlier today, Beilein called them into his office, intending to broach that topic. They surprised him by bringing it up themselves. So, as the team settles into oversized leather seats to watch clips of the Indiana game, Beilein asks Hardaway and Burke to share their words with the group.

"We realize yesterday we took the bulk of the shots," Hardaway says. "A lot of guys didn't get enough shots and we apologize. We didn't mean for it to happen. We're just trying to do the best we can."

Burke then chimes in: "We know that for us to be as efficient as we have been in the past games, everyone has to be involved."

The other players applaud as soon as the guards finish speaking. It's tough to say how frustrated they truly have been with Saturday night's shot selection, but there is no question that their teammates' unlikely speech has defused any lingering resentment. That's a crucial first step in moving forward from Indiana; Beilein needs to keep his players united in their vision and focused on what comes next.

As his starting guards take their seats, Beilein launches into the film session the way a professor approaches a lesson plan. The pace is rapid, the attention to detail precise. He focuses heavily on a twist Indiana threw at the team. The Hoosiers elected to face-guard sharpshooting freshman Nik Stauskas and slashing frosh Glenn Robinson III in the corners, rather than helping off them against drives. Combined with the way they defended the pick-and-roll, the Hoosiers essentially dared Burke and Hardaway into beating them with long-range shots. Foes will likely emulate that approach, so Beilein discusses counter options.

The team may be watching the Indiana game, but the emphasis palpably begins to shift toward Ohio State. And it's not just because a breakdown of the Buckeyes' personnel is written on a whiteboard to the left of the screen. In showing how Indiana attempted to "down" ball screens, Beilein makes an obvious connection to the last Ohio State game. When a team downs a side pick-and-roll, the man guarding the ball handler plays so high, with his back pointing toward the opposite sideline, that the guard cannot use the pick. He is forced to drive toward the baseline, but that's where he encounters the screener's defender, who is sagging off his man. This was how Ohio State throttled Michigan's offense in their first meeting, a 56-53 win. A large portion of the coming prep work will focus on solving that riddle.

"This is very much about us getting better than worrying about the next opponent," Beilein says. "But I do want to show you a few clips." The Wolverines take more mental notes on the Buckeyes, then head to the practice court to reinforce the lesson.


Michigan-Ohio St
Michigan's Nik Stauskas takes aim against Ohio State's LaQuinton Ross.
Sun., Feb. 3, 7 p.m.
Hardaway stands over a stove, stirring ground beef with a wooden spoon. In the living room, his housemates munch on tortilla chips and guacamole as they watch the Super Bowl. Downtime is hard to find during the season, but Beilein made sure to end practice early enough for the guys to catch most of the game. Small acts like this go a long way toward keeping players fresh.

The house that Hardaway shares with teammates Josh Bartelstein, Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford is the team's hub for the big game. Four other Wolverines recline on the couch or sit around the dining room table. Considering this is college, the atmosphere is shockingly civilized. Well, at least until halftime. Then Beyonce shows up.

Suddenly, the guys are as attentive as during the film session. Corey Person, a fifth-year walk-on who is that guy every team needs -- the one who dances in the pregame huddle and has a different handshake for each of the starters -- grooves to "Crazy in Love" while holding a plate of four tacos. By the time Destiny's Child reunites for a number, the room is rocking. Hardaway grabs the remote, jolts the volume several notches, and joins Person in a two-person, eight-taco routine.

If there was any lingering malaise from Bloomington, it's gone. The guys are cracking jokes at the expense of Person and freshman Mitch McGary, debating the creativity of Jacoby Jones' end zone routine and scarfing down wings, breadsticks and anything else they can get their hands on. "I think we did a really good job of putting it behind us," Morgan says of the Indiana game. "I think we realize that not a lot of people go in there and win, so it's not the end of the world."


Mon., Feb. 4, 11:02 a.m.
Gospel music plays softly in the background as assistant coach LaVall Jordan scrolls through video clips on his laptop, searching for a highlight of Morgan driving to the basket in the first Ohio State game. He finds it, then projects it onto the TV mounted on the wall facing his desk. This game is Jordan's scout, which means this process of breaking down clips started before the trip to Bloomington. But he's not acting alone. "I've already got three hours of film in!" a peppy Beilein says, popping his head in the doorway. What a surprise.

If yesterday was about curing the Indiana hangover, today is back to business for the Wolverines. The OSU game is just a day away, and there is much to deduce, discuss and digest. Considering the team is limited to 20 hours of basketball a week, and no more than four hours a day, that process must be efficient with the players. A good amount of Jordan's work is duplicative -- he had the scouting assignment for the first meeting, too. But on multiple occasions, he has blamed himself for not preparing the team well enough against certain plays. So he watches clip after clip to make amends. And right now he is consumed with the color red.

In the Wolverines' lingo, "red" is synonymous with "downing." Jordan typically focuses on defense -- offense is assistant Jeff Meyer's specialty -- but everyone is searching for the right answer to solve the reds tomorrow night, especially given Aaron Craft's ability to pressure Burke. The problem is that you can get only so creative with such little time between games. "We're on the run here," Meyer says. "It's like trying to change your golf swing on the tee box between 8 and 9." When the team meets for film and practice this afternoon, then, the key will be making adjustments that are rooted in familiar principles.


Mon., Feb. 4, 3:17 p.m.
Morgan lies facedown on a padded training table, his right leg extended upward at a right angle. DoRosario rubs gel into the ankle, a common occurrence since Morgan suffered a nasty sprain at Illinois eight days ago. The swelling has subsided considerably, but Morgan's lower leg is a deep shade of purple, down to his toes.

Morgan tried to give it a go at Indiana, but Beilein deployed his usual starting center/forward for only two minutes. Now, he's hoping that an extra couple days of rest and rehab can somehow get him ready for tomorrow night against Ohio State. "Having looked forward to that game and having the chance to take the lead in the Big Ten, it just sucked to not be able to do anything," Morgan says.

He makes his way into an adjacent room, where he lowers himself onto a hydro treadmill equipped with underwater cameras. Morgan's injury is the only serious one for Michigan. But DoRosario is still plenty busy: At this stage of the season, particularly with this quick turnaround, recovery is key. Massages, cold tubs and targeted stretching and lifting with strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson -- it's all part of the grind that players must go through in a life that is largely scripted. Morgan has taken things a step further, spending large chunks of his limited free time in the training room, doing whatever he can to get back on the court. But in the race to return tomorrow night, time is running short.


Mon., Feb. 4, 4:22 p.m.
As the Wolverines gather near center court at Crisler Center, Beilein briefly addresses this tail end of a five-game, 13-day stretch. "This is great prep for what we're going to go through," he says, a not-so-subtle nod to the postseason. That's the carrot. The reminder of why every pass in every drill in every practice matters. The Wolverines are chasing championships, which Beilein reminds them each day.

So it heartens him to see the attention to detail evident among his core players. While the scout team gathers at one end to learn a handful of Ohio State plays, the guys who will actually see game action huddle and repeat key points from the scouting report. "That's really good," Beilein remarks.

Most of the strategic decisions are already in place, particularly those on attacking Ohio State's reds. If the 5 man slips the screen, he would dive hard to the rim. Or the Wolverines will also use Robinson as the screener, since he is a better playmaker than any of the centers, capable of catching the ball near the foul line and shooting, driving or passing.

Beilein keeps the pace quick by flip-flopping strategic drills with skill development. Even with this condensed prep time, fundamentals must be emphasized. So as a manager whacks the bigs with a pad on their way to the basket -- a drill that teaches them to finish through contact -- Alexander shouts "Landing mechanics! Sumo style!" That makes Sanderson smile; those are terms he uses in the weight room. "BA will pick up on the stuff I teach the guys and apply it in these drills all the time," he says.


Mon., Feb. 4, 7:59 p.m.
As Michigan's players pile their plates with chicken parm, pasta and tilapia, they're not just wolfing down a free meal. Training table is yet another part of the all-encompassing process of fine-tuning young athletes. The staff makes sure the players take in enough calories and hydrate obsessively, while also cutting soda out of their diets and replacing ice cream with a smoothie bar.

On a wall-mounted TV, Jay Williams and Seth Greenberg are still discussing the IU game. Williams gushes about Cody Zeller's determination as he tracks down a long offensive rebound; McGary says, "That's a foul." Hardaway starts blending a smoothie, which drowns out the analysis. By the time the announcers begin previewing tomorrow's game, not one Wolverine is even paying attention. So much for any fears Beilein had of an Indiana hangover.

The importance of transitioning to the right frame of mind isn't lost on the players. "The Indiana loss definitely lingered the next day, but it was my job to tell the team that we can't dwell on it," Burke says, while cutting into his meal. "I think the next day we did a good job of learning from it and moving forward to Ohio State. Either we bounce back or take two losses in a row. We don't want that to happen."


Tue., Feb. 5, 5:39 p.m.
The hours seem to drag on game days, especially when tipoff isn't until 9 p.m. Already, the players have gone through a walk-through and yet another film session; the guards had an extra meeting with Beilein to go over sets in greater depth.

Now, though, the Wolverines have two hours to kill before they're due back in the locker room. The preparation is done, but these last few hours are still important for molding the team's psyche by 9 p.m. Some of the upperclassmen head home for a nap. The freshmen don't have cars, so they are stuck at Crisler. Stauskas fires up jumpers. Robinson and Spike Albrecht chill in the players' lounge, tapping on their phones before drifting off to sleep. Max Bielfeldt and Blake McLimans opt for "Madden" and "NHL 13."

Morgan is back in the trainer's room. He is using every precious second to find a way to play tonight (he'll end up with just one four-minute stint) -- and also multitasking. As he strides on the underwater treadmill, his laptop, iPad and a textbook are propped on the ledge. Morgan has an engineering problem set to finish, and when you play college basketball, you make use of whatever time you can find. Even if you're about to face a bitter rival in a couple of hours.


Tue., Feb. 5, 9:52 p.m.
For the first time all week, Beilein's tone is harsh, his voice raised. "We are not competing at a level that we need to win this game!" he barks.

It's halftime, and the Wolverines trail 31-30. Ohio State's reds aren't causing problems -- the adjustments are working. Burke and Hardaway are sharing the ball, taking only 10 of the team's 27 shots. The Buckeyes' offensive sets aren't an issue either -- Jordan has the defense well prepared to shut down the initial actions. But Ohio State is beating Michigan to loose balls and hitting the offensive boards hard. The Wolverines are struggling to find the same intensity level they had at Indiana, and that raises Beilein's ire. Apparently, the turnaround isn't quite complete.

The coaches retreat to their office to plan for the second half, and Burke is the first player to speak up. "We need to play some D!" he shouts. "We need to stop talking about how we're going to play defense and make it happen. I'm tired of us saying we need to get stops and then we go out and get the same results."

The players alternately debate, cajole and motivate until Beilein returns. He is calmer, and talks them through a couple of shifts in strategy before leaning in, asking for eye contact. "You've got to understand that you're a hell of a team," he says, seeking to strike the right psychological nerve. "They're a hell of a team. This is what it's all about. Everybody that comes in here isn't going to lie down for you. We're all in a battle and that's what we practice for. That's why we lift weights. So go out and let's battle our asses off right now."

It's Beilein's last chance to mold his team into one ready to beat Ohio State. He hopes he has finally pushed the right button.


Tue., Feb. 5, 11:23 p.m.
Above the laughter and shouting, the joy and exuberance, a single voice emerges. "I've never seen a human being in a rhythm like Tim was today," Stauskas announces.

You can watch as much film as you want, walk through every opposing play. You can eat a diet without any fat and spend the rest of your free time in the cold tub. In the end, you have to hit shots. And Hardaway hit shots. The junior guard nailed five 3-pointers in the second half to help send the game into overtime, then stuffed (and possibly fouled) Craft at the buzzer to preserve a 76-74 win.

Beilein is proud. The Wolverines weren't perfect, but they responded to his halftime challenge with resolve. "You had five games in 13 days," he says. "You came out of it 4-1. That shows another sign of toughness. As we get into March, that's the same toughness you're going to have to have to win."

In that way, these games themselves were just mere preparation for Michigan's closing act. Sure, they mattered for the Big Ten standings and the national rankings. But there's always a practice to follow, more film to study, another game to win. Until there isn't. Which is what the tournament is all about.

Sometimes, though, for however brief a time, you have to stop hurtling forever forward. You have to enjoy signature moments. And this is one. So Hardaway climbs onto McGary's back and leads everyone in a raucous rendition of "Hail to the Victors." The fight song ends in cheers and congratulations. The party is just beginning on campus.

And tomorrow, mercifully, is an off day.

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