ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan came within a few points of upsetting Syracuse.
Kansas, too. Not to mention Ohio State.
Then the Wolverines went on the road, and against comparatively easier competition, they fell flat.
"When you go on the road, you have to be exceptionally good," coach John Beilein said Friday.
The Wolverines have lost five straight games, and after beginning the season on a promising note, they're struggling to deal with the daunting Big Ten schedule. Although Michigan was competitive against some of the nation's top teams, losses at Indiana and Northwestern over the past week were a bit of a reality check, and Beilein says his team hasn't yet shown it's any better than last season's Wolverines.
"I don't think so," he said. "Not yet, but we'll keep working at it. The whole idea is to get better and better as the year goes on."
Michigan hosts No. 15 Minnesota on Saturday night.
Not much was expected from these Wolverines, who went 15-17 last season, then lost guard Manny Harris, who left early for the NBA draft. But Michigan won 11 of its first 14 games and played Syracuse tough in a 53-50 defeat in November.
When the Wolverines lost in overtime to Kansas on Jan. 9, then by four points to Ohio State in the very next game, it seemed Michigan might be ahead of schedule with three freshmen and a sophomore in the starting lineup.
Michigan (11-8, 1-5 Big Ten) is still a work in progress, though. That's obvious after an 80-61 loss to Indiana and a 74-60 defeat against Northwestern. The Wolverines are eager to play at home again, where they've looked so tough at times.
"You don't like to lose, but it hasn't hit that point yet where everybody's kind of just down and there's no hope," guard Darius Morris said. "We know it's still a long season."
Morris is averaging a team-high 15.7 points per game. He also has 135 assists — no other Wolverine has more than 28.
Freshman Tim Hardaway Jr. is averaging 11.1 points and has been a disruptive presence on defense with his long arms.
Michigan plays typically of Beilein's teams over the years, avoiding turnovers and shooting a lot of 3-pointers. The Wolverines have to be efficient with their shooting because they don't get to the free throw line often.
Michigan shot less than 30 percent from 3-point range last season, a figure that's improved to 33 percent in 2010-11. There's still room for improvement, though.
In their past two losses, the Wolverines had a tough time at the defensive end. Indiana shot 67 percent from the field, and Northwestern made 10 shots from 3-point range, including eight in the first half while opening a double-digit lead.
Back home again, Michigan will try to clamp down on Minnesota (14-4, 3-3) with the type of performance that made the Wolverines look like a dangerous team when they hosted Kansas and Ohio State earlier this month.
"It definitely helped out with our confidence, I think," junior Zack Novak said. "They're now the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country. We got them both on the ropes in the last couple minutes. From a team starting three freshmen, that's not too bad."
If there's one benefit to playing in the Big Ten this year, it's that Michigan will have several more opportunities to break through against challenging competition — starting this weekend.
"We have opportunities for top 50-wins, a majority of the games we play," Beilein said. "So seize that opportunity and go after it."
Notes: Beilein said sophomore Jordan Dumars (knee) had surgery Thursday and will likely be in a brace for about a month. Dumars hasn't played this season. ... Beilein says he wouldn't mind reducing the capacity of Crisler Arena from 13,751 as part of renovations. "I do not mind if we do take down the number of seats," he said. "To 12,000 or something like that — make it more comfortable."