The problems plaguing the Michigan men’s basketball team are supposed to be early-season kinks, not late-January shortcomings.
But this roller coaster of a season didn’t have any initial kinks. It began with seven straight wins and a smooth ascension to the No. 4 spot in the national poll.
That was seven weeks ago. Now, the Wolverines are mired in the program’s longest losing streak since 2015. Their loss to Penn State on Wednesday pushed this year’s team into uncharted territory. Over the last three seasons, Michigan’s cumulative 89-27 record is among the country’s best. This year’s seniors have been to a national title game and a pair of Sweet Sixteens.
Yet on Wednesday, the Nittany Lions marched into Crisler Center and, in a season when winning a road game in the Big Ten is a rarity, sat in the driver’s seat for much of the game en route to a 72-63 win.
In the process, the loss seemed to bring the Wolverines’ flaws to center stage. Energy lulls, failing to talk on defense and stretches of subpar focus — all elements within their control — were on full display.
Senior point guard Zavier Simpson tried to will his team to victory by hunting for his own shot and showing the passion that’s become synonymous with his name, but by the final buzzer, Michigan was left with its third consecutive loss.
More importantly, though, Wednesday provided a long look in the mirror for the reeling Wolverines.
They didn’t like what they saw staring back.
“In order to be able to grow, we really rely on (Simpson) to get us going and bring the energy,” junior guard Eli Brooks said. “I think that’s where, moving forward, we could do a better job as a team if we have more guys bringing the fire. Being uncomfortable with that position, being vulnerable like (Simpson) is, it’s tough.
“Some people just don’t lead that way and I think we need more people to step up.”
To Brooks, it’s an identity issue beneath the surface. Figuring out who can assume that type of leadership role is something most teams go through in November — not after falling to 2-5 in conference play in late January.
For Michigan, a blunt realization set in on Wednesday: Simpson’s voice can’t be the only one making a difference.
“It’s just about people buying in,” Brooks said. “You can’t forfeit the games coming up, so something has to give at the end of the day. You have to fight through it and take pride in it.”
Granted, the Wolverines have been without junior forward Isaiah Livers — who was their leading scorer when he sustained a groin injury on Dec. 21 — for over a month. Surviving in a cannibalistic conference without an integral piece is difficult, but that should have no correlation with energy, focus and defensive communication.
“It’s too late in the season for, you know, I have to beg our guys to communicate on defense,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “Not just on the defensive end, on the offensive end, too. It just so happens it’s a lost art in the game and we have to bring it back.
“Yes, I’m old school, but in order for us to forge ahead and move forward and improve, communication has to be a part of the process. That is surprising that some of our guys don’t like talking on defense. … There’s a lot of guessing going on, and I just don’t understand it.”
Howard often lauds his group for being solution-based, but it’s going to take more than just ideas for the Wolverines to reverse course after losing four of their last five conference games.
Coming up with the right ideas is one thing. Successfully putting them into motion is another. With March just five weeks away, Brooks knows Michigan must prioritize the latter.
“I feel like I can be a more vocal person,” Brooks said. “Just by being in the right spot and trying to get other people in the right spot and bringing that energy. I know that’s not who I am but I could be that.”
Now that the problem has been diagnosed, it becomes a matter of how quickly the Wolverines can solve it. At this point, the direction of their season hinges on it.
“It’s January 22,” an exasperated Howard said at the postgame podium, toeing the line between frustration and plea.
And that’s the point.
Dash can be reached on Twitter @DanielDash_ or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.