This game against Penn State at home was supposed to be a way to get out of a slump, a way for the Michigan men’s basketball team to regain its rhythm — and some standing in the conference rankings.
That is not what it turned out to be.
What it turned out to be was 40 minutes of proof that Michigan’s issues on defense are still very much in play, at home or on the road, and that it boils down to a lack of communication.
“We just couldn’t get defensive stops,” sophomore forward Brandon Johns, Jr. said. “We just need to be better on defense. Our communication could’ve been a little bit better. We just need to be solid with all the little things on defense.”
Penn State shot 48.2 percent from the field, and 42.1 percent from beyond the arc, in its eventual 72-63 win over Michigan. And it wasn’t as if all of those 72 points were coming from distance. The Nittany Lions had 22 points in the paint. No matter where the shots were coming from, they were falling.
And the Wolverines had a hard time stopping them.
“They got too many open looks,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “And it was because of lack of communication on the defensive end. It’s January 22. We talked about it. We have to communicate on defense, be physical, don’t be surprised.”
After Michigan was gashed in the post at Minnesota last week and continued to struggle inside against junior center Luka Garza and Iowa on Friday, going up against Penn State’s lethal combination of senior forwards, Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins, was a tall task, literally. Stevens and Watkins give Penn State a lot of length. With Isaiah Livers still sidelined with a lingering groin injury, Michigan has been turning to a three-guard lineup at times, which left them looking somewhat small on the court Wednesday.
But the Wolverines’ problems were far from being contained inside the painted lines. Penn State punished Michigan from just about anywhere, taking advantage of the open looks they got from the Wolverines.
The thing was, it wasn’t as if the Nittany Lions brought out radical new looks or started taking shots they haven’t been taking all season. Wednesday night’s shot chart looked pretty similar to any of a number of Penn State shot charts from this season.
Michigan knew what was coming. And they still couldn’t stop it.
“We have a great scouting report, and we watch film on every opponent,” Howard said. “We see guys’ tendencies as well as their strengths, and who can shoot the ball and where they shoot the ball from.
“So there’s no surprises. I understand why guys get open looks. It tells me it’s because of lack of communication.”
As the Wolverines are seeming to sink further and further into their ongoing slump, the mood in the locker room is not helping. Players are “getting in their heads,” according to Johns. And that’s just making it harder on defense, where so much — as is becoming increasingly clear lately — depends on teammates talking to each other on the court.
If they don’t start talking, it doesn’t seem that the energy — or the defense — is going to get better anytime soon.
“It’s something you should do regardless,” junior guard Eli Brooks said. “You’re a basketball player. At the end of the day, hopefully you’ve been doing it your whole life. Talking on the court and just bringing energy are different things.”