Michigan basketball continues to hum with record in sight

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — John Beilein only remembers the loss that broke it. Back in January of 2013, about two months before his first serious breakthrough as Michigan's head coach, Beilein's youthful group of talent tied a program record with 16 straight wins. "Somebody told me that we had the record, that we had 16 before," Beilein said Thursday night in Illinois. "This is how much I'll remember it: Someone says to me 'who did your 16th win come against the last time?' "I would say 'I have no idea.' " That squad, a group filled with freshmen and sophomores, rattled off 16 straight wins mostly by force of will. Michigan was more athletic and more skilled than just about every team it faced through the 10 weeks of the season. Explosive enough offensively to have high enough peaks that ultimately made up for some pretty serious valleys. Then, the trip to Ohio State. Michigan was No. 2 in the country, playing in a tough road environment, and quickly found out what life in the Big Ten was all about. The Wolverines got blasted in the first 10 minutes of the game, falling behind 26-6. They nearly clawed their way back, but a Trey Burke buzzer-beater spun out — handing a young team its first loss and first bout of adversity at the same time. "I do remember Ohio State broke (that streak)," Beilein added. "I remember the losses." Six years later, Michigan's program is back with that same start. The Wolverines got a terrific floor game from Zavier Simpson (16 points, eight assists, five rebounds) and a double-double from Jon Teske (13 points, 11 rebounds) Thursday night to score a 79-69 road win at Illinois to match the school record with a 16-0 start (5-0 in Big Ten play). The Wolverines can break that mark Sunday with a home win over Northwestern. But records really aren't anything Beilein's overly concerned with. Consistency matters more. And this version of Michigan basketball, right now, has it in spades. Whether Beilein wants to admit it or not. "Oh, I wouldn't say a five-point lead over Binghamton with like eight minutes to go was very good. No offense to Binghamton, they've got a young team," he said afterward, doing his best to keep everything in perspective. "We're still growing, how about that? We'll have peaks and valleys. And how we handle those will be important." There are several reasons why Michigan's had the start its enjoyed through the early part of 2019 and one thing at the top of the list has been the Wolverines' overall ability to stay even-keeled throughout most situations in a basketball game. Michigan doesn't really overwhelm teams with offensive outbursts the way Beilein's 2013 group did. It systemically picks opponents apart, never really seems to have major stretches where things are broken and, thus, doesn't allow the opposition to make any type of real run that could even things out. The Wolverines started Thursday night's game at Illinois — a young group that's nowhere near as good as that 2013 Ohio State group that snapped Michigan's streak — on a 7-0 run in the first three minutes of the game. Michigan then spent the next 37 minutes basically toying with Illinois on a string. The lead never got higher than 13, but it never got lower than the four-point edge the Wolverines held early in the second half. Over the final 10 minutes of the game, Illinois never got within fewer than seven points. The Illini scrapped. But Michigan, which had its share of hiccups, wasn't really having it. "We're happy to accomplish that achievement," Simpson said. "But at the same time, we want to keep going. We're happy, we're not satisfied. "We've got Northwestern on (Sunday)." The secret sauce with this team, which isn't really a secret at all, is its ability to get consistent contributions from all six of its top rotational players. Sixth man Isaiah Livers returned to action after missing the last two with a back injury, he put up nine points and five rebounds in 23 minutes off the bench. Teske had a double-double. Ignas Brazdeikis had 15 points and eight rebounds. Charles Matthews' shot was off early, but he defended well and made enough strong cuts to the rim to finish with 14 points. Jordan Poole was just 2 of 10 from the floor, but still managed 10 with a 5 of 6 performance at the foul line. And then there's Simpson — who stifled Illinois' only serious run of the second half with an open 3 and kept things completely in his hands throughout a relatively painless second half. "They're not the No. 2 team in the country without him," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said after the game, declaring Simpson as Michigan's most valuable player in his book. What happens from here is anyone's guess, though the road will get more difficult for Michigan starting Jan. 19 with a road trip to Wisconsin's Kohl Center. The Wolverines also have a January trip to Indiana's Assembly Hall. There are trips to Iowa and Penn State in February. And, of course, Maryland and Michigan State in early March. Beilein won't remember the wins that put this streak together, he'll only remember the team that breaks it. Which makes sense. Because the team that puts together a 40-minute effort to stop this Michigan group will have certainly earned it. The Wolverines aren't the most powerful team in the country. They don't have the most NBA-ready talent. They're not the youngest, they're not the oldest. But they might be the most consistent. And most nights, that's enough. "We have a lot of confident players on our team," Simpson says. "Guys on our team are extremely confident." Contact Nick Baumgardner: Follow him on Twitter @NickBaumgardner. Download our Wolverines Xtra app for free on Apple and Android devices!