SportsTuesday Column: As Wolverines seek answers, schedule won't do them any favors

Monday, January 16, 2017 - 8:12am

Michigan coach John Beilein needs to find his team's identity if the Wolverines hope to return to the NCAA Tournament.

Michigan coach John Beilein needs to find his team's identity if the Wolverines hope to return to the NCAA Tournament. Buy this photo
Evan Aaron/Daily

 

Saturday’s win over Nebraska was a start, but if the Michigan men’s basketball team wants to play in the NCAA Tournament this season, the Wolverines are going to have to get there the hard way.

All but gone is the chance to walk into the tournament by simply beating the teams they were supposed to beat — and with it, any benefit of the doubt they could have hoped to receive also disappeared.

After allowing more than 75 points in four of its last five games, Michigan’s tournament hopes seem to rest on the chance that its offense can outgun opponents. The only problem is, the point in the conference schedule at which that strategy was viable is essentially over. And the Wolverines finished just 2-3 during that stretch.

Over the next month, Michigan will be going up against some of the conference’s best teams with little time for a breather. The Wolverines will play two games apiece against Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan State. A pair of theoretically winnable home games against Ohio State and Illinois will be added to the mix, but even then, it’s not a schedule that inspires confidence.

KenPom.com projects that Michigan will split those eight games to go an even 4-4. That would bring its conference record to 6-7, at which point KenPom projects the Wolverines would lose four of their final five contests. They are currently slated to be KenPom’s higher-ranked team in just four remaining games on their conference schedule. It’s worth noting that, so far, the popular basketball analytics website has not been entirely accurate at predicting Michigan’s outcomes.

But the current projections illustrate an important point as the Wolverines veer ever closer to panic territory: the schedule’s not going to get any easier from here.

Michigan had its opportunity to load up on easier conference road wins against Iowa and Illinois, and it missed. Add in a blown home game against Maryland, and there actually has yet to be a game in conference play that the Wolverines could not have conceivably won. And only one — the 85-69 drubbing at the hands of Illinois — truly reached blowout territory.

But now Michigan finds itself in a precarious position. At a time when the Wolverines need to be gearing up for a stretch of play that could either punch their NCAA ticket or virtually eliminate them from at-large contention, they are forced to split their focus by looking for answers.

No Michigan team in recent memory has seen defensive struggles this consistent in Big Ten play. Even two years ago, when the Wolverines limped to a .500 record, they gave up 80 points just three times all season. They have already done so four times this year.

The offense, on the other hand, is actually performing quite well in both raw statistics and efficiency numbers. It has taken on a different character than other recent John Beilein teams in that it has two big men it can look to both down low and outside in redshirt sophomore DJ Wilson and sophomore Moritz Wagner. It’s hard to deny the group is still dangerously reliant on the deep ball, but with the current roster makeup and the head coach’s longstanding philosophy, that’s probably for the best — especially since shots have been falling.

In fact, according to KenPom, Michigan’s offense is by far the most efficient it has been since 2014, when the Wolverines won the Big Ten. The problem is that the defense is the least efficient it has been in the KenPom era (since 2002).

That leaves Michigan with a decision to make. Either the Wolverines can embrace an identity as the most extreme version of the shootout style they have long leaned toward, or they can attempt a defensive 180 in hopes of recapturing the potential they flashed at the 2K Classic in November.

It may not make a huge difference which identity they choose to pursue, but they will need to decide as fast as possible.

The next month will be bookended by games against Wisconsin, the class of the Big Ten. It would be neither stunning nor singularly damaging for Michigan to lose Tuesday in Madison, in a road environment that is unforgiving to even the most polished opponents.

But after that, the Wolverines will have to figure themselves out in a hurry. There’s simply no time left to waste.