Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein thinks the team’s stretch of guarantee games could be just what it needs to reestablish its identity. The team (7-3) routed Delaware State on Saturday and will host Northern Kentucky (2-5) on Tuesday as a 20-plus point favorite.
Beilein sees the stretch — which also includes guarantee games against Youngstown State and Bryant later this month — as an opportunity to regroup.
“We’ve taken a good look at our team,” Beilein said on Monday. “We’ve seen our strengths, seen our weaknesses and tried to adjust accordingly. We still have a lot of weaknesses — we certainly have some strengths — so I think we can continue to grow a little bit at who we are and try to establish that identity as we go into the Big Ten (schedule).”
That identity has been altered since the beginning of the season. Senior guard Spike Albrecht announced last week he is ending his career due to injuries. Meanwhile, junior forward Zak Irvin has recovered more slowly than anticipated from a minor back surgery in early September, and has not produced at the level Beilein and others predicted at the season's outset. Last year, Irvin shot 36 percent from behind the arc. This year, so far, he’s making just 18 percent of his attempts from deep.
Junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. — who has been out since the Dec. 2 game against North Carolina State — could return Tuesday. Beilein said that before the Delaware State game, Walton told him he was “pain-free” and that the coach could use him in an emergency situation if he needed to.
Even with the potential of having Walton back, Michigan's biggest problem is still not solved.
“The rebounding is the biggest concern right now,” Beilein said. “It’s something that’s not natural for a few of our guys. … It’s got to be something all the time, great physical block out or going to get the ball.”
The rebounding is part of a bigger problem: Michigan’s bigs have struggled, and not just on the boards. Beilein replaced junior Mark Donnal with sophomore Ricky Doyle in the starting lineup after four games, and has played Doyle along with freshman Moritz Wagner since. Each player has shown streaks of potential — during the Wolverines' trip to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis last month, Wagner scored 16 and 18 points in the team’s second and third games, respectively.
But the numbers from the Michigan’s losses are more telling. In three defeats, Donnal, Doyle, Wagner and Wilson have totaled just 17 rebounds and 23 points.
Against the Norse on Tuesday, Michigan’s bigs will have a good opportunity to gain some confidence. Northern Kentucky’s starting center Jalen Billups is 6-foot-6, 245 pounds — three inches shorter than Doyle and four inches shorter than Wagner. The game could still be a test for the Wolverines’ bigs, though. Billups averages 5.6 rebounds per game, two more than any of Michigan’s big men.