Theo Mackie: Michigan has lost its offensive way

Wednesday, January 23, 2019 - 11:50pm

Freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis shot 4-of-18 from the field against Minnesota on Tuesday.

Freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis shot 4-of-18 from the field against Minnesota on Tuesday. Buy this photo
Natalie Stephens/Daily

On Saturday, then-No. 2 Michigan went into the Kohl Center and was repeatedly stymied. It was a frustrating afternoon that saw the Wolverines shoot just 40.7 percent from the field, score a season-low 54 points and drop their first game of the season.

But despite the woeful offensive performance, Michigan coach John Beilein remained unconcerned — at least outwardly. The loss, he insisted, was a product of Wisconsin’s stifling defense. Though Beilein made sure to remind reporters that he never wants to lose, it was seen as a welcome opportunity for the Wolverines to reflect and improve after two months of straightforward wins.

“Credit Wisconsin, they had a great game plan defensively,” Beilein said. “They made us score over them, like Wisconsin teams always do. … So it’s just a typical loss to Wisconsin.”

And for three days after the loss to the Badgers, that line of reasoning held water. Wisconsin ranks ninth in adjusted defensive efficiency and has allowed just four opponents to top 70 points this season.

Then, Minnesota came to town.

Wisconsin is objectively good at defense. Minnesota is not, ranking 12th in the Big Ten in adjusted defensive efficiency.

And still, Michigan couldn’t score. For over two months, the Wolverines had not dipped below 60 points in a game. On Tuesday, they did so for the second time in four days.

This time, Michigan escaped with the win, thanks to a baseline jumper by redshirt junior forward Charles Matthews that beat the final horn by milliseconds. But despite the win, Beilein’s postgame presser carried a much different tone.

“We gotta grow a lot,” he said. “We gotta grow a lot. We lost a 13-point lead late. How many times do you see that happen at Michigan, where we let it go like that?”

Beilein was, of course, referring to the four-minute, 51-second scoreless stretch before Matthews’ buzzer-beater, in which the Wolverines went 0-for-6 from the field and missed a pair of free throws. But that sentence — How many times do you see that happen at Michigan? — could be used to describe to any number of stretches from the past two games.

It could describe the 2:52 Michigan went before scoring its first point Tuesday. Or the 18 minutes the Wolverines went without hitting a 3-pointer down the stretch. Or the nine-minute stretch of Saturday’s second half when they scored just five points, allowing a four-point lead to become a six-point deficit.

“We definitely didn’t play our best game,” said freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis on Tuesday. “And (Beilein) let us know about that for sure.”

The bigger problem, though, is that Michigan has no discernable solution. On Saturday, Beilein attributed the offensive woes to his team’s 16 turnovers. Against Minnesota, the Wolverines slashed that number to six, but were equally unimpressive, undone by a lack of ball movement.

“The ball’s stuck a lot and the ball’s not moving,” Beilein said, when asked to diagnose Michigan’s struggles.

Then, he paused and offered up the type of candidness that he has rarely needed to display this season.

“And here’s another thing, the fast break. Sometimes, fast break, we shouldn’t even do it. Cause we’re jogging up the court, we gotta sprint. We don’t run. (Minnesota’s) numbers in defensive transition, they’re not great. But we jog up the court and so, we can’t do it. So this is what they get, you end up getting scores in the 50s and 60s if you’re not willing to bust your butt to get up the court.”

That sloppiness on the fast break reared its head on Tuesday, when junior guard Zavier Simpson threw a pass away in transition, allowing the Golden Gophers to curb an 11-point Wolverines’ run and kickstart their 13-point comeback. Against Wisconsin, it was sophomore forward Isaiah Livers who couldn’t find Matthews a 2-on-1 fast break that would have put Michigan up by five with 8:41 to play. The Wolverines never led by more than one again.

But even when Michigan checked its sloppiness at the door and moved the ball like Beilein wants it to, it couldn’t find bottom.

At one point midway through the first half, trying to cut into a nine-point deficit, the Wolverines ping-ponged the ball around the perimeter, from sophomore guards Eli Brooks and Jordan Poole to Matthews and, finally, to Brazdeikis in the corner. It was their best offensive possession to that point, but as soon as Brazdeikis — who was shooting 42 percent from deep just five games ago — released, he took two quick hops of resignation, instantly knowing that he had missed his ninth three in a row, dating back to Jan. 10 at Illinois.

It ended up as one of six missed threes for Brazdeikis, who finished 1-for-7 from beyond the arc and 4-for-18 overall — part of a 3-for-22 team performance from deep.

“We just gotta make them when we’re open,” Beilein said. “Some of our guys aren’t getting open, it’s because they’re changing the basketball rules, saying we don’t care. Wisconsin took a player and just face guarded one of our players. And he didn’t have any help D, but that was the thing, ‘this guy’s not getting a look.’ And they’re making other people do it. And every game is different how they play us.”

Then, a reporter brought Beilein back to his comments after the Wisconsin loss, when he called the loss a teaching opportunity.

Were you expecting more growth?

Beilein, again, had no choice but to be candid.

“I was. I was. … Probably foolish of me to think, ‘Geez, we watched two days of film and it’s just gonna carry over.’ ”

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