Theo Mackie: Amid struggles, Michigan searches for solution

Wednesday, February 27, 2019 - 11:28pm

Charles Matthews and the Michigan men's basketball team is looking to find their early-season dominance.

Charles Matthews and the Michigan men's basketball team is looking to find their early-season dominance. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

In the moments after Sunday’s loss to Michigan State, a frustrated Isaiah Livers made his rounds through the Michigan locker room, approaching each teammate with a trio of questions.

What’s your goal?

What’s your motive?

What’s going on up there?

That type of overt leadership may seem out of place to anybody who knows the sophomore forward. His most prominent postgame role is typically that of Jordan Poole’s sidekick — the radiant personality who fills any room with smiles. He rarely serves as an outward leader, a role mostly filled by Zavier Simpson and Charles Matthews.

But Sunday evening, Livers found himself in an all-too-familiar situation. Just last year, the Wolverines endured similar February struggles, needing overtime to escape Minnesota at home and losing at Northwestern. That was when the switch flipped for Michigan. After the loss to Northwestern, it didn’t lose again until the National Championship Game two months later.

“Everybody put their side agendas aside and played Michigan basketball,” Livers said Wednesday. “I think that was the biggest step we made going in from late February into March when we got hot. Everybody put their — everybody stopped thinking about after the season, everybody was thinking about, we’re here now. We’re not gonna think about the future.”

This time around, though, the February surge that coach John Beilein’s teams typically exhibit has been reluctant to arrive.

The Wolverines, who paraded through their early-season slate with a world-beating sashay, know they’re not maximizing the potential that they displayed months ago. When asked where they have improved since early in the season, Matthews paused, futilely searching for answers before falling back on the cliché that they, “just continue to get better each and every day.”

The evidence disagrees. Michigan’s offense averaged 73.2 points per game before the new year. In January, that figure dropped to 68.5. With one game to play in February, it sits at 67.1. On the other side of the ball, the Wolverines have gone from allowing just 57.9 points per game in January — the first month of Big Ten play — to 65.0 this month.

“We didn’t have that fat L that a November loss is, cause we were 19-0,” Livers said. “So we kinda had to learn the harder way, in our conference, which kinda sucks.”

So Livers, remembering the Wolverines’ mid-season downfalls a year ago, wanted to snuff out the type of distractions that hampered them then. But in the days since Sunday’s loss, he has found nothing but focus on Nebraska, Michigan’s next opponent.

And therein lies the problem. The struggles — at least relative to early in the season — are unanimously agreed upon. Solutions aren’t, leading everybody to float their own theory.

“Just focus on the next day at task,” Matthews said. “We went on a run like that in March because we were just trying to win the day, each and every day. And we wasn’t getting too far ahead of ourselves. So if we can just stay in the moment, we’ll be good.”

But according to Livers’ postgame accounts, that isn’t a problem. Instead, he pins the struggles on Michigan losing the voracious attitude that it had against Villanova and North Carolina. Against Michigan State, though, the Wolverines were clearly locked in from the tip in an electrifying opening half, but still fell, 77-70.

“It would be great to have everybody (on at the same time),” Beilein said. “But that’s been the biggest mystery so far.”

As Beilein finishes a 22-minute presser rife with questions about the Wolverines’ recent struggles, he makes sure to finish with one final point.

“If you’re still competing for a Big Ten championship and it’s almost damn March, you’re having a heck of a year.”

To make a Big Ten title — or any of its other goals — reality, Michigan has to rediscover the early season form that put it here in the first place.

Mackie can be reached at tmackie@umich.edu or on Twitter @theo_mackie.