ROSEMONT, Ill. — The message is clear as day for the Michigan men’s basketball team: There isn’t much to gain from beating low-tier Big Ten teams in its final stretch of regular season games, but there’s a hell of a lot to lose.
Despite a 19-6 record coming in to Monday’s game against Northwestern, an NCAA Tournament bid is far from a lock. Based on their recent press conferences, those stakes did not look to be lost on coach John Beilein and the 20th-ranked Wolverines. After all, they have eked into the Tournament by the skin of their teeth the past two seasons thanks to miraculous Big Ten Tournament runs and a kind selection committee.
And yet, as Michigan entered Allstate Arena to a crowd that was overwhelmingly made up of Wolverine fans to face a Wildcats team they had limited to just 47 points eight days prior, you would have never known. The nearly unwatchable display of basketball that fell in Northwestern’s favor, 61-52, was resemblant of a Michigan team that seemed on the outside looking in. It would have perhaps inspired the casual observer to turn the TV off and read a book. Or socialize with others. Or anything else.
The deflated showing began early at the 18:23 mark, when freshman forward Isaiah Livers rolled his ankle on a transition layup. His day of contributions would be done after two minutes. Perhaps as much can be said of Michigan.
The first half offered poised, but unremarkable basketball. A 32-29 halftime advantage might as well have been a tie. Both teams looked lazy and hesitant.
“I don’t think we fastbreaked well. I don’t think we got two feet in the paint well,” Beilein said. “We’ve got a situation where we fake a jump shot, the guy jumps out of the way and we just pass it to somebody else. It’s just habits that we’ve gotta continue to change.”
As for the second half, that’s when the wheels really came off. But when the Wolverines falter, they don’t do it with turnovers or obvious sloppiness. It’s a sweeping malaise that permeates every other facet of their game. They shot 5-for-20 the entire half including 1-for-10 from 3-point land, a byproduct of Northwestern’s zone adjustments and a simple inability to hit open looks.
“We’ve gotta shoot the ball better,” Beilein said. “We’re not made that way. But when we’re shooting the ball well we’re pretty good. When we shot like we did today, it’s not gonna do much good.”
Added junior forward Moritz Wagner: “We didn’t do a good job of making decisions, (we) missed shots that we usually make. … I think there were a lot of shots that we could’ve made and that we’ve made in the past.”
Dare I mention their free throw woes, too? Going 13-for-19 on the night is considered a tremendous improvement compared to Saturday’s abysmal 12-for-28 output against Minnesota.
“It sucks,” Wagner said. “You play basketball to make shots. It’s fun to win. If you miss free throws — I think we missed like five free throws in a row, that’s not fun. Especially in crunch time.”
In multiple instances, even the basics were thrown out the window. In a 2-on-1 fast break down eight points, freshman guard Jordan Poole tried to rifle a pass to a cutting Zavier Simpson that hit Northwestern’s Scottie Lindsey square in the leg. Shortly after, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman nearly turned the ball over going up the court on an errant pass over Duncan Robinson’s head, saved by a timeout.
An anomalic performance should not necessarily be a cause for concern — no team in college basketball can avoid that fate over the course of such a long season. But at this point, it’s not an anomaly.
Since its 20-point defeat at Nebraska, Michigan’s offense has shown that it plays to the level of its competition. And with the exception of the game at No. 3 Purdue — where Michigan dropped 88 points in a narrow loss — that hasn’t been a good sign when playing conference cellar-dwellers.
“It’s getting late in the season, a lot of film out there,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “A lot of teams are doing a lot of things and adjusting to the way people are playing. We just gotta make adjustments, too.”
The Wolverines have hardly impressed in their past five games to be considered tournament guaranteed, let alone the 20th-best team in the nation. Maybe this punch in the face will bring them back to the reality.
If that’s not the case, then it seems the ugly play is only going to get uglier.