Beginning with a Jan. 24 win over Purdue and culminating with an embarrassing road loss to Michigan State on Feb. 12, the Michigan men’s basketball team played a stretch of seven games in 20 days.
The Wolverines won the first three games comfortably, but lost three of the final four contests. By the time the gantlet had ended, they’d played four road games, four teams in the current Top-25 poll (including two of the nation’s top-four teams) and two overtimes but held just one practice that wasn’t devoted to a specific-game preparation in the three week period.
After a few days to get over the loss to the Spartans and prepare for Sunday’s win over Penn State, Michigan now finds itself at the beginning of a 20-day stretch with just four games before the regular-season finale at home against No. 1 Indiana.
Michigan coach John Beilein, who said after Tuesday’s loss in East Lansing that the time off will be a “great time to get back to the basics that we were doing earlier in the year,” was relieved to finally be done with the toughest portion of the schedule.
Beilein gave his players Monday off in hopes they’d come back fresh on Tuesday. The Wolverines don’t have a game until Illinois visits Ann Arbor on Sunday.
“We don’t usually take (a day off) the day after a game,” Beilein said Sunday. “We like to watch the film, video, and take the following day off, but the way I looked at it during this week is get healthy (Monday), have a little mini-camp Tuesday and Wednesday and have another day off Thursday for most of our guys. That way we get guys two days of rest this week.”
The regular wear and tear of a season can slow down anyone — perhaps an explanation for why Penn State was able to score 10 points more than its season average on Sunday — but the Wolverines are facing more pressing injury issues. Redshirt junior forward Jordan Morgan has been severely limited by an ankle sprain he suffered on Jan. 27 at Illinois. Since then, he’s missed two games and has yet to play double-digit minutes in the other four contests.
“We had no idea that Jordan Morgan would take this long,” Beilein said. “He wants to play, he’s insisting on playing, he’s insisting on coming to practice, so you’ve got to trust him. But when you watch him move out there, it’s not happening. He’s delayed.
“He’s rehabbing all day long. … He’s very slow. Until he gets better, that really affects us.”
Freshman guard Caris LeVert is also dealing with a sprained ankle sustained on Sunday, providing more evidence that this time off couldn’t have come at a better time for the Wolverines.
But even with the injuries, Michigan has several issues to correct, mainly on defense. The Wolverines allow an average of 61.4 points per game, but they have given up 70-plus points in five of their last seven games. Some of that has to do with the nature of the opponent, but Michigan’s defense has also committed numerous defensive breakdowns, such as slow rotations or failure to box out, which Beilein hopes he can correct in practice.
“We’re going to get back and guard some people, play defense,” Beilein said of this week’s plans.
With the postseason less than a month away, this week off is crucial for Michigan to get back on track. But with so many young, inexperienced players, Beilein cautioned of the difficulties between allowing for slower learning curves and trying to get his messages to stick.
“It’s a sweet spot that we really have to be very careful with,” Beilein said. “If this is the 80th practice and you’re still not talking on defense, then you have to get after them.
“We pride ourselves on being teachers, but there were some moments these last couple weeks that we just say, ‘Enough is enough. We’re going to do this because you won’t do that.’ It’s that area where you don’t want to get them to where they lose their confidence, but at the same time, getting tougher right now through all these things is important for us.”