It’s the season of giving, and boy could the Big Ten use some luck after this week.
The Big Ten/ACC Challenge came and went, and it was an unsightly scene for the former. The Big Ten posted a 2–11 record against its fellow Power Five conference foes, unveiling harsh signs of the down year that many expected. Now for the Michigan men’s basketball team, with a newly-designed Big Ten schedule, the first of two December conference matchups begins Saturday against Indiana and both teams desperately need a pick-me-up victory.
The Hoosiers (4-3) have essentially been a captainless ship thus far, with seven players averaging seven or more points. Guard Robert Johnson is the closest qualifier to be recognized as Indiana’s leader, ranking first on the team in scoring with 14.1 points per game. The bulky, 195-pound senior is the only Hoosier averaging more than 25 minutes per game and could pose the greatest challenge to the Wolverines (6-2), who remain in limbo over who will take over the point guard reins.
Johnson was especially impressive in Indiana’s narrow 91-81 loss to No. 1 Duke on Wednesday, showcasing an expansive range while contributing tough defense on the Blue Devils’ backcourt amidst an otherwise porous defensive effort by his team.
On Saturday, the direction of the contest may ultimately depend on which Indiana shows up — the one that lost to Indiana State at home by 21, or the one that was neck-and-neck with Duke for almost a full 40 minutes.
This volatility, though, is all too familiar to Michigan. After a nearly flawless performance against UC Riverside last Sunday, the Wolverines looked like they somehow picked up more momentum against No. 13 North Carolina with an astonishing 8-for-8 start from the field. The incredulous shooting was short-lived, as Michigan followed that start with a more typical 20-for-58 finish en route to an 86-71 defeat.
“I think North Carolina might be that good, and we’re definitely not that bad. But we certainly played poorly,” said Michigan coach John Beilein after the loss. “… We (shot well), too. But we all of a sudden went out of that and got a little uncharacteristic of ourselves and we got what we deserved.”
Added junior forward Moritz Wagner: “I don’t like to say that (we’re young) because that sounds like an excuse. … We can’t allow that stuff. That just can’t happen. We’re a great group and we always talk about how great our chemistry is. We’ve gotta show that on the floor.”
A 15-point defeat to a college basketball powerhouse isn’t a cause for concern, of course. The Wolverines’ torrid scoring pace initially illustrated their potential to attack from all spots on the floor. Wagner waltzed freely in the paint, Charles Matthews continued creating space for his shots and Michigan was passing well and finding open looks from beyond the arc — they just weren’t falling like they should have.
An obvious weak point the matchup against the Tar Heels revealed, however, is inconsistent frontcourt defense from Wagner and fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson. North Carolina’s Luke Maye had a field day overpowering Robinson, and Wagner struggled to corral defensive rebounds over the more-athletic Theo Pinson and the towering Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley. Indiana’s De’Ron Davis and Juwan Morgan may not carry the same finesse as the Tar Heels big men, but they will be the biggest front court duo the Wolverines have faced so far.
“We weren’t ready for the quickness, the speed and the precision that they run with,” Beilein said. “We weren’t locked in defensively, we just weren’t locked in. I can’t tell you why. We’ve seen it before, we’ve gotta shore it up.”
Eight games into the season, Beilein is yet to solidify an eight- or nine-player rotation that would put the cynical fan at ease, even against a rebuilding team like the Hoosiers. With Big Ten season starting early, having that decided quickly is becoming the fine line between winning and losing.