EAST LANSING — Brick by brick, Michigan laid the foundation of its own downfall.
Whether it was beyond the arc, from the elbow or along the baseline, the Wolverines struggled to knock down shots for three-quarters of Sunday’s 18-point, 87-69 drubbing at the hands of No. 14 Michigan State.
A fairly even contest through the first ten minutes gradually eroded into Michigan being forced to play catch-up.
Without leading scorer, junior forward Isaiah Livers, the Wolverines had nowhere to turn offensively when the Spartans’ All-American point guard Cassius Winston caught fire. While Winston, who finished with 32 points on 11-of-19 shooting, orchestrated his team’s offense to perfection, Michigan’s offense sputtered.
Senior point guard Zavier Simpson and senior center Jon Teske did their best to keep the Wolverines in the game, but poor 3-point shooting from Simpson — 1-for-6 — and foul trouble for Teske meant that Michigan’s attack was too inconsistent.
“Give Teske credit, he went to work on us early in there,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. “I didn’t like the way we covered him at times. But, we made some adjustments and got a little better in the second half.”
With Teske on the bench, the Wolverines lacked an offensive focal point and resorted to hoisting up some ill-advised shots. This was especially true from 3-point range, where Michigan went 5-of-23 over the course of the game.
In Livers’ absence, sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. stepped in at the ‘4.’ Johns Jr. may be of the same athletic ilk as Livers, but less polished offensively. Despite scoring 12 points in 30 minutes, Johns Jr. shot 25 percent from three.
The rest of the Wolverines rotation didn’t fare any better. Junior guard Eli Brooks, who upped his offensive production significantly from last season, was limited to five shots — missing all four of his 3-point attempts.
The Spartans chased Michigan’s shooters off their spots, something that they emphasized going in.
“We wanted to take away their threes,” Izzo said. “We didn’t give up the wide-open threes.
“We did a pretty good job on Brooks and (sophomore guard) David DeJulius, and I think that was one of the differences. (Freshman forward Franz) Wagner hit one, too, but we did a decent job on what we had to do to win the game.”
Without Livers and his shooting threat, Michigan coach Juwan Howard was forced to play more of his bigs. As a result, the paint looked more congested and opportunities to attack the basket were harder to come by.
“Isaiah would’ve helped (with the spacing),” Teske said. “But that’s no excuse. We always say, ‘Next man up.’ Brandon played well tonight and we trust him to do that.”
The Wolverines’ poor shooting on the road has become an alarming trend and one that reared its ugly head again in East Lansing. 36.2 percent from the field isn’t a recipe for success in Big Ten play — especially when Winston and Michigan State’s offense hums like it did on Sunday.
The answer to improving these woes according to Michigan: keep working.
“There were some shots that didn’t fall,” Howard said. “Unfortunately for us, it’s been our norm going on the road that our threes don’t fall for us. We just gotta keep forging ahead and mentally stay with it.”