On Tuesday night, Michigan hit 21 of 62 shots, including a feeble 3-for-22 from 3-point range, and scored just 0.92 points per possession.
Thanks to a buzzer-beater by redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews, the Wolverines escaped with a 59-57 win over Minnesota. But that highlight aside, anyone who bravely trekked through the freezing rain to Crisler Center would call it for what it was: an objectively ugly game of basketball.
How ugly? Michigan’s effective field goal percentage of 36.3 was, per UMHoops.com, its worst shooting performance in a win since 2008, when John Beilein’s first Wolverine team beat Illinois, 49-43.
It’s a frequent saying, especially in a conference as strong as the Big Ten — a win is a win. That didn’t offset the ugliness or make this particular win any more enjoyable.
Speaking to reporters 20 minutes after the most memorable play of his college career, Matthews was subdued. He candidly elaborated on Michigan’s latest struggles while seemingly trying to forget about the Wolverines’ last two games.
“Yeah, I’m happy,” Matthews said. “But I don’t feel like we played that well.”
He continued: “I told the team, (junior guard Zavier Simpson) told us as well, we kinda gotta loosen up. We’re playing kinda tense out there. We understand we want to have a perfect season. We want to win, but we still gotta be out there playing with smiles on our faces, having fun and competing to win.”
In the overall season context, Matthews’ explanation for Michigan’s sluggishness makes at least some sense, because it’s a story we’ve seen before.
The Wolverines trudged through December’s slate of guarantee games and looked similarly uninspired against Big Ten bottom-dweller Penn State. After beating the Nittany Lions, a date with then-No. 21 Indiana loomed. Despite an unbeaten record, the past month had set a mandate: Michigan would have to play more inspired, play more consistent, play better against better teams.
And did the Wolverines ever do that. Matthews was everywhere against the Hoosiers, racking up steals and fast-break dunks while locking future lottery pick Romeo Langford in a closet. Highly-touted freshman Brandon Johns broke out to the tune of eight points and eight boards in 13 minutes. Michigan led by 17 points less than 10 minutes in and finished with a 74-63 win that never seemed that close. To the extent that “flipping the switch” is a real phenomenon, this was it.
That contest was in line with a trend: The Wolverines have played their best basketball with the bright lights on. In highly anticipated games against Villanova, North Carolina, Purdue and Indiana, they were just about untouchable, and they seemed to know it. But they haven’t always looked that way against teams that shouldn’t be able to touch them.
Maybe Matthews is correct. Maybe Michigan possesses the ability to flip the switch whenever it wants. Maybe all it needs is to have fun again.
All of this is to say: Friday night’s rematch at Indiana will put that theory’s viability to the test.
It’s a matchup that has admittedly lost a bit of its luster. Starting with their loss in Ann Arbor, the Hoosiers are in a five-game tailspin. They come in shorthanded as well — center De’Ron Davis is out with an ankle injury, while starting guard Devonte Green was indefinitely suspended earlier in the week for undisclosed reasons.
But it is a road game in the Big Ten, and as cliché as it is, winning on the road in conference play is a challenge itself. If there’s any place that provides a real home-court advantage, it’s Indiana’s Assembly Hall. And the Hoosiers still have Langford and forward Juwan Morgan — who scored 25 points against the Wolverines on Jan. 6.
Simply put? It’s a game that Michigan shouldn’t have to struggle to get up for.
“When you’ve got 17,000 people cheering against you, it’s just the stuff you dream about growing up,” said sophomore guard Jordan Poole. “You want to be in situations like this.”
Beilein spoke more quietly than usual Tuesday, flatly stating his disappointment in Michigan’s lack of growth from Saturday’s loss. Thursday, his tone was similar but tempered. He admitted that his expectations might have been too high; that his message after the loss to Wisconsin needed more time to sink in.
“I was not as happy as I probably should have been,” he said. “I think, as a coach, you expect too much, you expect it to immediately kick in after the Wisconsin game. And when I saw some of the similar things that we had pointed out … Sometimes you just gotta be ready to move on, realize I’m human, they’re human, and we should have enjoyed that win better.”
But if the lessons learned in Madison have yet to take effect, any concerns will keep growing in urgency. On the heels of two subpar performances, the difference between a two-point win, a 20-point win or a loss becomes that much greater.
If the Wolverines indeed have a switch, Friday night would be a good time for them to flip it.
“I feel like we were just trying to go out there and win a game, rather than being excited to make open shots and being excited to beat a good team. I feel like that’s something that decreased the last couple games,” Poole said. “Being able to flip the switch and try to turn it on tomorrow and get after it in practice, just have fun. When you’re there, you have 16 people against 17,000. … Being in that situation is something I feel is exciting for us.”