In the Big Ten this season, a team can go from potentially No. 1 in the country to the middle of the pack in the conference in a matter of days.
That was the possibility that the Michigan Wolverines faced Thursday night when they went to Minnesota to take on the ninth-ranked Gophers.
Michigan was coming off its first loss of the season Sunday at Ohio State, which was made all the more disappointing because the Wolverines likely would have been voted the top team in the country with a victory over the Buckeyes.
So the Wolverines headed to Minneapolis knowing that another defeat would have dropped them into a tie for sixth place in the Big Ten, easily the toughest conference in college basketball this season.
The Wolverines responded to that challenge by totally dismantling the Gophers, leading by as many as 19 points before holding on for an 83-75 victory at Williams Arena.
It moved fifth-ranked Michigan (17-1) into a second-place tie in the Big Ten with Michigan State with a 4-1 conference record. Wisconsin is in first place at 4-0.
The Wolverines have a six-day break before taking on Purdue next Thursday at home.
“They really wanted to compete today and they really bounced back from that Ohio loss,” Michigan coach John Beilein said of his players during a postgame interview on the Wolverines’ radio network.
The difference was all in how they started.
Against Ohio State, the Wolverines fell down early, trailing by as many as 21 in the first half before a valiant comeback bid on the road fell short in a 56-53 loss.
Instead of actually trailing by double digits this time, the Wolverines took the approach that they were down big from the moment they stepped on the plane for the trip to Minnesota, according to Tim Hardaway Jr.
“The mindset was we’re down 10, we’re down 10,” said Hardaway, who led the way by scoring 17 of his 21 points in the first half. He scored 12 points in the first 10 minutes. “Everybody was clicking.”
“We needed something to happen in the first half,” Beilein said. “Our defense was good. Tim Hardaway was sensational, really did a wonderful job of just letting the game come to him.”
The turning point came when Minnesota point guard Andre Hollins picked up his second personal foul less than seven minutes into the game and went to the bench for the rest of the first half. The Gophers were leading 13-10 at the time.
Michigan took advantage of Hollis’ absence, forcing 10 first-half turnovers and outscoring Minnesota, 22-3, in points off turnovers in the half.
“Recognizing now that we have a little bit more quickness in our backcourt, in our frontcourt, everywhere, in this particular game and some other games, you want to just beef up the pressure just a little bit,” Beilein said. “Just bring up the pressure a little bit more that you can maybe get some easy baskets.”
It led to a 36-30 halftime lead for the Wolverines, who poured it on even more in the second half. Michigan took a 56-37 lead on a steal and a spectacular 360-degree breakaway dunk by freshman Glenn Robinson III.
Minnesota cut the deficit to single digits in the final minutes, but never could make it all the way back.
Michigan point guard Trey Burke had to go back to the locker room and switch to a No. 12 jersey with no name on the back midway through the first half to replace his No. 3 jersey that was severely torn.
No problem. New number, same player. Burke finished with 18 points and nine assists. Freshman Nik Stauskas, who didn’t score at Ohio State, added 11 points.
The Wolverines shot 54.9 percent and made 10 3-pointers. They certainly lived up to their ranking — and then some — in a hostile environment.
Minnesota (15-3, 3-2), which lost its second consecutive game, was led by Austin Hollins’ 21 points.
The Wolverines have now won eight of the last nine meetings in the series, including four in a row at Williams Arena, considered one of the better home-court advantages around.