Well, it happened again.
For the third time in the last month or so, the Michigan men’s basketball team took on Michigan State, and for the third time, the Wolverines started strong, got out to a lead and fell apart at the end.
Any pain that accompanies those losses and the Big Ten Championships that fell just out of reach is worsened by the fact that the Spartans used essentially the same formula each time. Or maybe it was that Michigan used the same formula to lose each game. It doesn’t matter now.
At some point in the second half of each of the three games, the Wolverines withered offensively and Michigan State seized control. In the first game, it was a stretch of more than 10 minutes without a made field goal that saw a six-point Michigan lead turn into a five-point deficit. In East Lansing, it was a seven-minute stretch. On Sunday, it was slightly less pronounced — a nine-minute stretch with four made field goals — but the end result was the same.
“It’s just four or five possessions in that game that are critical to win a championship game,” Michigan coach John Beilein told reporters Sunday. “We’ll learn again from it. Hopefully, it’ll help us in the NCAA Tournament, because you waste possessions in offense and defense in the NCAA Tournament, you’re probably going to lose because everybody’s pretty good.”
This isn’t necessarily abnormal. At times this season, the Wolverines’ offense has struggled through down stretches. Against most teams, Michigan’s defense is good enough to stifle opponents until shots start falling again. Either that, or the Wolverines had already gotten out to a big enough lead that down stretches didn’t matter.
Against the Spartans, those things didn’t hold true, because Michigan State is a very good basketball team.
But that is Beilein’s point. Michigan still has championship aspirations, whether you believe them or not.
To get there, the Wolverines will have to score against good teams and keep good teams from scoring. It’s as simple as basketball gets, yet it’s unclear if it’s something Michigan is capable of doing in high-pressure situations.
“You can’t give away five or six possessions a game and say, ‘My bad,’ ” Beilein said. “You can’t do that. And that’s what we did today. Tell me a bad shot Michigan State took today. You’re not gonna find one. Not one. And so, you know, good teams value each possession.”
The problem is that when the offense breaks down, and it’s late in the shot clock or at the end of a game, it’s not clear where Michigan’s final shot should go. There isn’t a player on the team who has shown the consistent ability to just go get a bucket when all else fails. That’s when the possessions are wasted.
Sure, at times, freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis can hit a tough three or take it to the rim. But with 14 seconds left in the game, and the Wolverines down two, Brazdeikis took a contested, off-hand floater that didn’t drop.
Sophomore guard Jordan Poole has certainly hit some big, tough shots in his two years. He may have the most diverse offensive skill set on the team. But at the end of the game, down three, he took and missed an extremely tough three that surely wasn’t Beilein’s ideal look in that situation.
Redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews can hit a contested mid-range jumper with the best of them. But he, too, has struggled since returning from injury, scoring just 15 points on 6-of-21 shooting in the Big Ten Tournament.
The best teams in the country have a bucket-getter, who, when the you-know-what hits the fan, will have the ball in his hands no matter what. Michigan State has Cassius Winston. Hell, last year’s Wolverines had Moritz Wagner.
Michigan needs that. Brazdeikis, Poole and Matthews are the likeliest candidates right now, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter who it is. In fact, it could be all of them at different times if it has to be.
But these stretches can’t persist in the coming weeks.
If the Wolverines take care of Montana in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday like they’re supposed to, they will either play Nevada or Florida — obviously dangerous teams with experience.
Win that, and they’ve probably got Texas Tech or Buffalo in the Sweet Sixteen. Those teams have at least one, elite bucket-getter. Possessions in danger of being wasted will be minimized by those players.
If Michigan can’t respond when it needs to, then the season could end there.
There isn’t anything wrong with another Sweet Sixteen appearance for the Wolverines, but go ahead and ask them what their goals are, and I guarantee they reach beyond that.
After Michigan’s loss Sunday, Brazdeikis spoke of composure, and how the Wolverines didn’t keep it down the stretch.
The looks were good throughout the game until they weren’t. That was the difference.
Somebody needs to change that.
Persak can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @MikeDPersak