With two distinct possibilities for the future, the two outcomes of the past two weeks have been as different as night and day for the Michigan men’s basketball team.
In the first seven-day span, the Wolverines suffered a disheartening eight-point loss to Michigan State in East Lansing, and after a midweek bye, lost to a subpar Ohio State team at Crisler Center by four.
In both of those games, Michigan displayed a combination of poor shooting from the floor and defending in the paint that ultimately led to its downfall. Those two central problems have appeared sparingly at various points throughout the season, but when they finally showed up in full force, the Wolverines didn’t have a ready response.
At the Breslin Center, Spartan forwards Miles Bridges and Nick Ward had a field day. Matched up against redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson and sophomore forward Moritz Wagner, respectively, Bridges notched a double-double with 15 points and 13 rebounds while Ward poured in 13 points on perfect 6-for-6 shooting.
To add insult to injury, Michigan State’s defense held Michigan to just 33.9 percent shooting from the field and 26.9 percent from beyond the arc. While the Wolverines attempted to generate an offense along the perimeter, the Spartans took over in the middle and led the points-in-the-paint battle by 14.
The situation grew dire against the Buckeyes, as Michigan simply couldn’t stop Ohio State down low. The Buckeyes outscored the Wolverines 26-8 in the paint and 19-4 in second-chance points, dominating them both in the post and on the glass.
Ohio State’s trio of big men proved to be physical mismatches for Wilson and Wagner, who had the tall task of shutting down players with far more experience in the post. Forwards Marc Loving and Jae’Sean Tate led the way with 17 and 13 points, respectively, while center Trevor Thompson secured a double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds.
“It is tough,” said Michigan coach John Beilein after the loss. “Those guys are young bucks in there playing for the first time, and they are going to get overmatched sometimes, and they’re going to get better. We just gotta wait it out until they get there, that they’re not sitting next to me, that they know how to play without fouling and they know how to move their feet better.”
Two consecutive losses to its two biggest rivals was certainly a tough pill to swallow, but their implications took a harsher toll.
After the disappointing week, Michigan dropped to 4-6 in the conference — firmly in the bottom half of the standings — and sat on the outside looking in at the NCAA Tournament. With their postseason hopes on life alert, the Wolverines would need a dramatic resurgence to put themselves back into consideration.
Still, the upcoming week featured a rematch against Michigan State and a trip to Bloomington, where Michigan hadn’t won a game in seven years. Two more consecutive losses looked like a real possibility for the Wolverines, and with games against No. 11 Wisconsin, No. 16 Purdue and Northwestern still left on the schedule, a sure death sentence.
But in the two days between the Ohio State and Michigan State contests, dusk turned to dawn, a new week began and a new Michigan emerged.
On Tuesday night, the Wolverines blitzed the Spartans from the opening tip. Shooting a scorching 75 percent from the floor and 72.7 percent from beyond the arc in the first half, Michigan had a 55-29 lead at halftime.
“If you say, ‘This is the only way we’re going to win,’ and you go, ‘We’re going to shoot threes all night,’ then all of a sudden you can get empty real quick,” Beilein said. “We are a good shooting team. That’s never been the big adjustment we’ve had to make.”
While Bridges and Ward still repeated their totals of 15 and 13 points, respectively, the Wolverines matched Michigan State with 34 points in the paint. Instead of being overmatched physically, Michigan overmatched the Spartans in terms of energy.
Forcing 21 turnovers and scoring 30 points off them, the Wolverines wreaked havoc all game long, eventually blowing out Michigan State by nearly 30 points.
Though the hot shooting didn’t travel with them to Assembly Hall, that persistent energy did. On Sunday, Michigan forced another 15 turnovers against Indiana and scored 20 points off them en route to claiming another double-digit victory.
Wilson and Wagner proved to be bright spots rather than blind spots, turning it around on the defensive end. The duo acted as a thorn in the side of Hoosier center Thomas Bryant, limiting him to just eight points in the contest. They came up big on offense as well, as Wilson scored 13 points and Wagner notched a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds.
Two decisive wins was clearly a dose of medicine, but their ramifications provide stronger relief.
The Wolverines pulled themselves up to 6-6 in the conference — the final spot in the top half — and now sit as a projected 11-seed in the NCAA Tournament according to ESPN’s most recent Bracketology report. While there is still much work to be done, Michigan is still breathing.
With six games left in their Big Ten season, the question remains: Will the Wolverines stay in the light of day or revert back to the darkness of night?
Ashame can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @betelhem_ashame. Please be kind.