Before addressing the media on Tuesday, Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein lightheartedly noted that with spring approaching, the days have been getting longer.
“You know we’re getting 11 hours of daylight every day right now? You know that?” Beilein said. “That’s a secret about Coach Beilein. I keep track of the sunrise and sunset, because growing up in Buffalo, in the long winters, you couldn’t wait to have that sunshine.”
Outside, the sun may be on the rise, but inside of Crisler Center — where the Wolverines (9-6 Big Ten, 19-9 overall) practiced Tuesday afternoon in preparation for their Wednesday matchup with Northwestern — the sun has been setting on a season that began with unclouded optimism.
Senior guard Caris LeVert — who opted to forgo the NBA Draft and lead the team in his final year — has instead played just 11 minutes in 2016 due to a lower left leg injury. Senior guard Spike Albrecht has joined him on the bench after announcing in December he would be done playing due to his own injuries.
With both of their seniors on the bench, the Wolverines’ defensive struggles have caught up with them during conference play. Michigan’s opponents are averaging 67 points per game — the most opponents have averaged against the Wolverines since the 2007-08 season, Beilein’s first at Michigan.
With just three games left on the schedule, Beilein said his main focus is to emphasize better defensive play.
“We still can’t plug the holes in our defense right now,” Beilein said. “We just cannot do it. And we've just got to keep working at it. We’re going to do some drills today — like back to the beginning in some things — because we’re just having trouble with just the idea of guys in the midst of action getting into a stance and playing really good gap defense or 1-on-1 defense.”
As a team, Michigan aims to keep opponents under 40 percent from the field. Lately, the execution hasn’t been there. Four of the Wolverines' last six opponents have shot better than 50 percent from the field. On Sunday, Maryland shot 54 percent on field-goal attempts, edging the Wolverines 86-82 and snapping a 50-0 mark that Michigan had in games in which it scored 80 points under Beilein.
“(We need to emphasize) really being there,” said junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. “Helping the next guy, making it five against the ball as opposed to — it’s been basically just 1-on-1. The focus going forward is playing better team defense. I don’t think individually we can point guys out and say they’re not doing their job, we’ve just got to do a better job collectively.”
The Wildcats (5-9, 17-10) will be coming off an eight-day break after losing to Purdue on the road on Feb. 14. Northwestern has just five conference wins but has stuck around in many of its losses and even took a then-No. 7 Maryland team to overtime a month ago in College Park.
In a low point for the Wolverines last year, the Wildcats edged them in Evanston in a double-overtime thriller. Center Alex Olah led Northwestern with 25 points and 12 boards in a double-double effort. This season, the 7-foot center is pacing 10.6 points per game to go along with five rebounds despite missing six games in the middle of the season due to a foot injury.
Northwestern gets most of its offensive production from guards Tre Demps and Bryant McIntosh, who are averaging 14.9 and 14.3 points, respectively. McIntosh’s 6.6 assists per game are second best in the conference.
“They really are executing well,” Beilein said. “I mean, you look at all their games, they’ve been out of only a couple games. … They’re a good basketball team, and I wouldn’t doubt if they’re right in the middle of the Big Ten based on looking at their schedule going forward.
LeVert still out
Beilein said that he does not plan on LeVert playing on Wednesday.
“Do not expect Caris to be able to play,” Beilein said. “I just talked with him, and he’s not going to be able to practice today, he still has some discomfort. Going forward, just plan on that he’s not going to be playing until he’s ready to play again.”
The coach said that he will not shut down LeVert permanently because the senior guard still wants to play. Beilein wants to give him the opportunity to do so in his final season if he’s healthy.
Donnal’s future on hold
Before the season started, Beilein reclassified forward Mark Donnal from a redshirt sophomore to a true junior. Donnal has been Michigan’s best big man this year and is coming off a 25-point performance at Maryland. Despite his stellar play of late, Beilein said that any conversation of reclassifying him again in order to get four years of play out of him would not be an immediate decision.
“We probably will have that (conversation) ongoing,” Beilein said. “He’s really doing a great job of earning his scholarship this year. He's doing a wonderful job of working hard and doing everything. But we’ll meet at another time because it obviously affects our scholarship situation in 2017.”