Ethan Sears: Michigan must improve in Big Ten play

Monday, December 31, 2018 - 7:23pm

Charles Matthews was unsatisfied with Michigan's strong defensive performance against North Carolina

Charles Matthews was unsatisfied with Michigan's strong defensive performance against North Carolina Buy this photo
Katelyn Mulcahy/Daily

It was nearly midnight on Nov. 28, and I asked Charles Matthews for his assessment of Michigan’s defense.

The question, implicitly, assumed the Wolverines had played a good defensive game. After blowing the doors off North Carolina, holding a top-10 offense in the country to less than a point per possession, it felt like a safe assumption.

Maybe it shouldn’t have.

"I think people get it confused because it's North Carolina, and I think we've been giving up — how many points? Does anybody know how much we've been averaging given up?” the redshirt junior forward asked.

48, he was told. On that night, Michigan had given up 67.

“So we didn’t do that well defensively,” Matthews said. “Could have done better, obviously. They’re a great team and we need to continue to get better.”

I didn’t quite know what to say to that, and another reporter broke in.

“You held them 30 points below their average”

“Yeah,” Matthews shot back. “20 points above our average.”

Mere minutes earlier, the media room had been occupied by a furious and frustrated Roy Williams. “Right now, we stink,” Williams had said of his Tar Heels, and it was Michigan that drove him to say it.

And still, Matthews wasn’t satisfied. That standard was what led the Wolverines to start the season looking like a national title contender. Since that game though, every team Michigan has played has scored above 48 points.

That average was always going to go up, of course. But it’s far from the only way the Wolverines have slipped. In the month of December, they’ve struggled in routine games.

Despite lopsided final scores, Western Michigan, Air Force and SUNY Binghamton have all found themselves in a game with Michigan in the second half. On Sunday, the Bearcats — ranked 327th on KenPom — were within five points at the 10:56 mark in the second half, thanks to a listless offensive showing on the Wolverines’ part.

There are no shortage of non-basketball reasons for that. Sophomore guard Jordan Poole lamented the week-long rests between games on Saturday. Of the last three games, one was in the throes of exam season and the other two were over break. It’s easy to be complacent against bad teams, at home, when you know they probably aren’t good enough to beat you anyway.

To its credit, Michigan did win every game it played last month. It goes into Big Ten play ranked second in the country and one of four remaining undefeated teams. But there’s more to it than a record, and the Wolverines’ play has been alarming for their each of their last three games.

Back in November, when Michigan was blowing out top-ranked teams, coach John Beilein continually warned that they were just, “November wins.” If the Wolverines continue to play at their current level in the Big Ten, he’ll be proven right.

“I think it’s so hard when you had that (undefeated start),” Beilein said Sunday. “I think we handled it okay. I don’t know how a rookie comes into Major League Baseball and hits five home runs in his first week and everybody all of a sudden goes into it, it’s really hard to keep that going. We’d probably prefer it the other way.”

Traditionally, Beilein’s teams have done it the other way. Just last year, the Wolverines started the season down to North Florida at halftime and ended it in the national title game. In a testament to how well it started the season though, that room for growth doesn’t exist with this Michigan team.

It’s not easy to keep that momentum rolling all year. But if the Wolverines want to reach this team’s ceiling — a Big Ten championship and another deep March run — they’ll have to do just that.

Michigan could get away with playing down to opponents in guarantee games. That won’t happen in Big Ten play.

“I know people would probably say you’d like more non-conference games, games you can win by 20, and I don’t want it,” Beilein said. “We’re done with that. We need to play right now and just get into a sense of urgency.

“If you wanna win a championship and the Big Ten, we’ve just gotta improve.”

As usual, he’s absolutely right.

Sears can be reached at searseth@umich.edu or on Twitter @ethan_sears.