The Michigan men’s basketball team beat Penn State, 68-55, on Thursday in a game that just about summed up the Wolverines’ last month.
Once again, it wasn’t a blowout. Once again, Michigan scuffled at the start, picked up its stride late but didn’t truly pull away until the very end, if that. Once again, the Wolverines played just well enough to win and little else.
That’s all been good enough for a perfect start to the season and a No. 2 national ranking. But it’s been a while since Michigan (3-0 Big Ten, 14-0 overall) has played an entire game at the dominant level it did in nationally televised, statement wins against Villanova, North Carolina and Purdue.
It’s easy to argue in favor of outside factors — lack of motivation for the guarantee games of December, coupled with the grind of final exams — for the Wolverines’ recent lackluster play. Players and coaches have expressed as much.
“We came out of a lot of games that weren’t in conference play and they were a bit weaker competition,” said freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis on Thursday. “It’s a bit of an adjustment for us to get used to this kind of play again.”
Sunday’s game against No. 21 Indiana will put this argument to the test.
Michigan has won four straight in the series, including a 69-55 win at Crisler Center last year. After a Big Ten regular season title in 2016, the Hoosiers have gone just 34-31 over the last two seasons; a storied program mired in mediocrity.
This season, however, expectations in Bloomington are back to their normal lofty heights. It starts with Romeo Langford, Indiana’s Mr. Basketball last season and the No. 6 freshman in the class of 2018. The 6-foot-6 shooting guard has been hailed as something of a program savior, and in scoring 18.3 points per game, he’s done nothing to quell the hype.
While Langford is the centerpiece of the optimism surrounding Indiana (3-0, 12-2) this year, second-year coach Archie Miller has built a deep, experienced squad, one that has already beaten Butler, Marquette and Louisville. Juwan Morgan is one of the best second options in the country, averaging 16.1 points and 7.7 rebounds, and Justin Smith, Aljami Durham, Devonte Green and Rob Phinisee all average over seven points per game.
“They’ve been really good in close games,” Michigan coach John Beilein said of the Hoosiers. “They’ve got impressive wins, Butler and Louisville are really impressive wins, they had another one earlier. … They have a great freshman recruiting class that’s been banged up a little bit by injury, but they got five guys that have been around, either fifth-year guys or guys that are juniors, and that’s rare today to have five guys that are juniors and seniors that are all going to play. They’re a veteran team with a tremendous freshman in Romeo Langford, and it’s going to be really challenging for us.”
Particularly challenging for the Wolverines will be their two-point defense and the battle inside. After a ridiculously — and unsustainably — stingy start to the year, Michigan has given up over 50 percent shooting inside the arc in five of its last six contests. While the Wolverines have remained strong on defense by taking away the 3-point line — Penn State was just 1-for-14 — Indiana’s efficiency on twos (60 percent, the third-highest in the country) could be enough to exploit a relative weakness as of late.
“The two-point conversion rate is a big (assistant coach) Luke (Yaklich) thing as well,” Beilein said. “You can’t take away everything from people. We’re taking away so many three-pointers that part of that is you might give up some two pointers.”
Many of those might come from Morgan, an undersized, 6-foot-8 center shooting 74 percent from inside the arc and 45 percent beyond it.
Much of the Nittany Lions’ offense came inside via forward Mike Watkins, who went 5-for-5 in the second half against junior center Jon Teske. Teske is one of the premier defensive centers in the nation, with over two blocks per game. But while Watkins is more of a traditional big man, slowing Morgan will be an even more daunting task due to his inside-outside ability, and Teske will again be put right under the microscope.
“(Morgan) scored some tough buckets against us last year, and now he’s shooting threes and shooting it at a high clip, he’s making one a game at a high percentage,” Beilein said. “It’s the typical progression.
Both teams might be shorthanded on Sunday — Phinisee was ruled out due to a concussion, and sophomore forward Isaiah Livers missed the Penn State game due to back spasms. Beilein offered little clarity of Livers’ status on Friday, but said that the injury isn’t expected to be long-term.
“Some nerves were obviously giving him pain,” Beilein said. “So how is that happening, and how can we reduce it as quickly as we can. I don’t know if he’ll do much today, we’ll try to go out today and get him to move around a little bit, and he’ll be in therapy over the next few days.”
Injuries notwithstanding, Indiana is the best team, by some distance, that Michigan has seen in well over a month, and will demand a much more complete performance than the Wolverines had on Thursday — or in any game since early December, for that matter.
It’s unreasonable to expect 31 perfect showings in 31 games. But if Michigan wants to beat Indiana, it will need to come pretty close. Letting teams like Western Michigan, Air Force and Binghamton hang around won’t do the job anymore. Sunday marks a firm end to that part of the season. The bright lights are back on again.
Let Beilein say it himself.
“It’s going to be a charged-up atmosphere, national TV again, and we’ll have to play better probably than we did last night. But if we play defense like we did last night, we’ll have a chance.”