A year ago Wednesday, Michigan beat Texas, 53-50, in a grind-it-out type of win you tend to see in college basketball in early December.
The Wolverines went eight deep that day, two of whom didn’t take a shot. Derrick Walton Jr. played 39 of 40 minutes, and bench contribution was more symbolic than reality.
It was a team that knew what it wanted to be — and the path it needed to take — even if it wasn’t there just yet.
Fast forward a year, and this iteration of the Michigan men’s basketball team heads into a game against UCLA with about as little clarity in its rotation as any team in the Big Ten.
Monday, in a loss to Ohio State, 11 Wolverines saw the court — including all three freshmen. Only senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman played more than 32 minutes, and their four leading scorers on the season — Abdur-Rahkman, junior forward Moritz Wagner, fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson and redshirt sophomore guard Charles Matthews — combined to shoot 1-for-20 in the second half as they let a 20-point lead deteriorate into a demoralizing nine-point loss.
Freshman guard Jordan Poole only played eight minutes, fifth-year senior guard Jaaron Simmons played seven first-half minutes, freshman starting point guard Eli Brooks watched the majority of the Buckeyes’ furious comeback from the bench and sophomore guard Ibi Watson was the first player off the bench.
This comes two days after Poole led the team with 19 points, Simmons did not play, Watson didn’t see the floor in the second half and Brooks led the team with six assists going up against a fifth-year senior.
The first step in establishing an identity is codifying a rotation.
And Michigan coach John Beilein seems no closer to doing so than he was at the outset of the season.
On Nov. 10, a day before the season-opener against North Florida, Beilein said he hoped to trim the rotation shortly into the season.
“(The rotation) will tighten up a little bit,” Beilein said. “I’ve always believed you can’t please everyone there, and you’re trying — perfect is an eight or nine man rotation. So depending on foul trouble, that’s where we’ll probably get to. Everyday is another opportunity for guys to get into those eight or nine.”
After a blowout win against UC Riverside Nov. 26, Beilein addressed the subject again, offering little clarity yet again.
“Everyday, I’m seeing who’s gonna grow now. I know what people do, who’s going to grow the fastest. I anticipate some will grow faster,” Beilein said. “That’s up for grabs, and it’s still up for grabs. It will be every game, I’m just gonna go, ‘Who practiced well? Oh, he practiced well? Go in.’ It won’t necessarily be what you see in games, but what we see in practice.”
It’s December now. Big Ten play has begun. The games are starting to matter more and more, and could ultimately loom large on an NCAA Tournament resume. Yet here we are.
After the game Monday, Beilein struck a now-familiar tone of patience when discussing the rotation.
“This is something that’s going to be a journey all year for us until we grow our young kids, and our veterans embrace their new roles as being the guys, being a guy that’s gotta make a shot, that’s gotta make a play at a certain time.”
According to Beilein, the tight schedule makes it difficult to implement changes. The Wolverines just faced a stretch of 10 games in 24 days. That kind of condensed schedule allows for less consideration of the team’s general direction, and more focus on individual game preparation.
For Robinson, that inconsistency in the rotation — and the solidifying of roles — doesn’t inhibit production on the court, or, in the case of Monday’s outing in Columbus, provide an excuse for a lack thereof. He’s not ready to make those excuses.
“I just want to win,” Robinson said in a blunt tone, carried over from a frustrating performance. “It doesn’t matter who has what role to me, I think those kind of play themselves out. There’s some identity there, knowing what you do well, and doing it, and doing your job, but we just have to play better.”
But at some point there will come a day of reckoning, when it comes time to make decisions and when patience no longer remains a viable option — when Beilein will have to decide whether he prefers Watson or Poole, which two of the three point guards will earn a majority of the minutes, who positions themselves to earn major roles and who doesn't.
Until then, the Wolverines seem content to continue to spin the roulette wheel, waiting patiently until the cream rises to the top.