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Joe Stapleton: What's wrong with the Wolverines?

Said Alsalah/Daily
Michigan guard Zack Novak (#0) plays against Boston College on Wednesday, Dec. 2nd, 2009 in Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor, Mich. Michigan lost the game 62-58 Buy this photo

Daily Sports Editor
Published January 12, 2010

On Monday, I wrote a column addressing the Michigan basketball team’s need to focus on what it is about the team that causes it to shoot itself in the foot.

I said tackling those internal struggles should be the Wolverines’ main focus right now.

In response, I received plenty of comments on the article asking the same relevant, obvious question:

So what are these internal struggles?

It’s a good question, and one that’s extremely tough to answer. But let me outline for you what I think the problems are, and what I think the problems aren’t.

Defense coming from offense

This is a generalization, but really good teams — teams that go to the NCAA Tournament — create offense from their defense.

If shots aren’t falling, good teams buckle down on defense and create fastbreak opportunities and easy buckets through steals, blocks, or long rebounds.

Why do great teams operate this way?

You can’t have an off day on defense — you’re either trying or you’re not, and that holds true with the even talent level in the Big Ten. Even if you’re shooting poorly, you can rely on your defense to create layups.

Yeah, I know, sounds like something you heard from your 4th-grade YMCA basketball coach, but it’s true.

Unfortunately, the Wolverines appear to be working on the opposite premise—their at times lackadaisical defense seems to stem from missing shots.

When their offense isn’t working, their defense breaks down. This was painfully apparent against Northwestern on Sunday. As Michigan began to have serious trouble cracking the Northwestern zone in the second half, the team’s frustration showed on the other end. In the first half, the Wolverines allowed the Wildcats to shoot just 34 percent from the field.

The second half? 56 percent.

“Because (Northwestern’s zone) took us out of rhythm (on offense), our defense in the second half was not good,” Michigan coach John Beilein said after the game. “We just got distracted by our lack of offense, and that’s the story of this team.”

So, there’s the major problem with the defense. But if the defense is lacking when the offense slips up, why has the offense been struggling so much this season? If the Wolverines could find consistency on offense, they presumably would play much harder on defense and they’d be a pretty good team — maybe the team people expected to see at the beginning of the season.

Starting a freshman or a prototypical spot-up shooting guard at point guard

I’m pretty sure you know who I’m talking about, but I’ll say it anyway. The freshman, Darius Morris and the shooting guard, sophomore Stu Douglass.

Morris was declared the starter at the beginning of the season because of the promise he showed in high school. He’s quick, has great vision, can penetrate and can dish.

But he’s still a freshman, and we can't all be John Wall.

He has shown flashes of brilliance, and fans can see him develop every game, but he’s not quite ready to lead a college team at that spot yet. I’m confident he will be capable, just not yet.

So instead of Morris, Beilein went with his next-best, and safer, option — Douglass.

Douglass handled the transition from shooting guard very well, cutting down drastically on his turnovers during the season, improving his defense and providing the Wolverines with a steady, experienced hand on offense.

Unfortunately, Douglass is not a point guard — he doesn’t slash and he doesn’t drive-and-dish. He’s simply a shooting guard who was asked to play point guard.

The result? Michigan is still without an experienced point guard.

How important is having an experienced point guard? Ask almost any recent NCAA Tournament Champion:

2009 North Carolina — Ty Lawson, junior.

2008 Kansas — Mario Chalmers, junior.

2006 and 2007 Florida — Taurean Green, sophomore and junior.

2005 North Carolina — Raymond Felton, junior.

The position is a lot like quarterback in football, and Michigan fans know all too well what it’s like playing with a freshman quarterback.

Starting an inexperienced point guard leads to two intertwined issues: not only is there no one who can get the ball in to DeShawn Sims in a way that puts him in a position to score, but there is also no one who can penetrate, draw the defense and kick out for wide-open shots.