COLUMBUS — Down the home stretch of the Big Ten men’s basketball season, it seems averaging nearly 36 minutes per conference game has finally caught up with junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. and junior forward Zak Irvin.
Walton already fell victim to a cold spell just three days ago in Michigan’s victory over No. 18 Purdue, a game in which Irvin played the hero with 22 points and the go-ahead basket. But Tuesday at Ohio State, neither player could get a rhythm going, and each finished 5-for-14 from the floor in the 76-66 loss.
The Wolverines’ two on-court leaders did reach double-digit scoring with some late baskets in the second half, and junior forward Mark Donnal tallied a team-high 17 points of his own. But Michigan consistently struggled to keep up with the Buckeyes, who made 54 percent of their shots and caused the Wolverines to commit several quick fouls, especially in the second half, while also holding them to 39-percent shooting.
“Derrick was still fatigued from the Minnesota game on Saturday, and now (he had to) go back (and play) again,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “They did almost nothing on Sunday, so we could really get some rest for them, but there’s a lot of minutes being logged out there.”
Continuing a common theme from Michigan’s losses this season, the Wolverines found themselves unable to solve an opposing defense that imposed its length on them, forcing them to take low-percentage, contested shots. Walton and sophomore guard Duncan Robinson — two generally prolific 3-point shooters — shot just 2-for-12 combined from beyond the arc, and tired legs certainly didn’t help.
“When an elite shooter like Derrick goes 2-for-something the last couple games, it’s a bad number,” Beilein said. “Duncan as well. Ohio State’s defense is really good. We’ve played four or five teams in this league (like that).”
The most tangible evidence of Michigan’s fatigue didn’t even come from the players on the floor — it came from the notable face missing.
Senior guard Caris LeVert, who made his return and played 11 minutes Saturday after being sidelined for six weeks with a lower-left leg injury, was unable to practice yesterday after feeling sore, leaving him out of the lineup for Tuesday’s game. Beilein declined to specify whether it was the injury flaring up or just general soreness; LeVert hinted toward the latter when he spoke with reporters Monday.
Slowly working LeVert back into the lineup was supposed to be a major focus for Beilein over the final few games of the regular season, but with so much uncertainty surrounding his status, the Wolverines have been unable to settle on a plan of attack or establish clear depth in the rotation.
“We were very hopeful that with those two days in between, we’d be able to do some things to give us some type of continuity of what we’re going to run against these guys in the future,” Beilein said. “We couldn’t dummy with (LeVert) or anything yesterday, just because we want to be so cautious knowing we have another game Sunday.”
And that game Sunday won’t be a picnic either — Michigan will travel to College Park to face No. 6 Maryland, which has only lost one home game this season despite being upset in Ann Arbor in January.
Having a few more days off should benefit the exhausted Michigan team, but no matter what Beilein says, the Wolverines themselves refuse to acknowledge their weariness down the stretch as they battle for an NCAA Tournament berth.
“I think every team goes through this, three games in seven days,” Irvin said. “I don’t really want to use fatigue as an excuse.”