Last season, the Michigan men’s basketball team flew through the first half of conference play en route to a 7-2 record before subsequently managing just three victories over its final nine games. The Wolverines ultimately finished with a 10-8 conference record that secured them an eighth-place finish in the Big Ten — the lowest of any team above .500 in conference play.
This season, Michigan (4-5 Big Ten, 14-8 overall) currently sits in a four-way tie for seventh place halfway through the conference season. The Wolverines lost only one of those games by double digits, against Illinois in Champaign on Jan. 11, but they also won only one by that margin — against Indiana at Crisler Center last Thursday.
While many of those contests came down to the wire and could have gone either way down the stretch, the bottom line is that Michigan didn’t do enough to win more games than it has lost.
Before the Wolverines kick off the second half of their Big Ten slate Saturday versus Ohio State, the Daily evaluates Michigan’s performance so far in 2017.
Through their first nine games, the Wolverines have been carried by their offense. Boasting an average of 74.1 points per game — good for sixth-best in the conference — Michigan has the ability to score from anywhere on the court.
The Wolverines are shooting 47.8 percent from the floor and 38.8 percent from beyond the arc, ranking them second and fifth, respectively, in the Big Ten. They crossed the 90-point plateau twice, in wins over Nebraska and Indiana. While Michigan needed to score that many to beat the Cornhuskers in a shootout, it blitzed the Hoosiers while holding them to just 60 points.
Four of the five players in the Wolverines’ starting lineup average double-digit scoring totals. Senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. leads the way with 15.1, while wing Zak Irvin averages 13.2. Both have capitalized on the impulse to make their final seasons count, coming up clutch in crunch time on multiple occasions, often from the free-throw line.
Redshirt sophomore DJ Wilson and sophomore forward Moritz Wagner have emerged as viable options for Michigan inside the paint. Averaging 13.4 and 12.4 points per game, respectively, the pair of big men provide an interior presence that the Wolverines sorely lacked a year ago.
The duo replaced redshirt junior guard Duncan Robinson and senior forward Mark Donnal in the first rotation, but the two veterans continue to make their presence felt off the bench. Junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, the sole starter who averages less than 10 points per game, has struggled to duplicate his breakout campaign from last year, but still averages 7.6 points from the ‘2’ spot.
While the offense is far from Michigan’s point of weakness, it still has room for improvement in the second half of the conference season.
In order for the Wolverines to turn their Big Ten fortunes around, the defense needs a serious adjustment. Michigan sits dead last in the conference in both opponents’ field-goal and 3-point field-goal percentage, allowing a rate of 51.8 and 48.9 percent, respectively.
While the Wolverines haven’t given up absurdly high point totals often — the most scored against them was 86, and that was in an overtime loss to Iowa — their losses have come in moments when they are beaten on that side of the floor.
In four of its five losses, defensive lapses came along with poor timing for Michigan. Against both Iowa and then-No. 17 Wisconsin, late defensive breakdowns cost the Wolverines relatively winnable games. Meanwhile, in the first half against Maryland and in the second half against Michigan State, substantial runs swung the momentum in the direction of the opposition. Only at Illinois did the Wolverines fall apart on defense throughout the entire game.
Though Michigan has struggled to stop its opponents from scoring, its strong suit is keeping them from scoring second-chance points. Forceful on the backboard, the Wolverines average 31.4 rebounds per game, good for second in the Big Ten. Wilson leads that effort with an average of 5.6, and Walton bolsters him with the next best average of 5.1 per game.
While rebounds seem to come naturally on the defensive end, Michigan sits in dead last in the conference in yet another statistic, with a minus-3.7 rebounding margin, because the Wolverines average just eight offensive rebounds per game.
Without a major improvement on the defensive side of the ball in the second half of the season, Michigan will struggle to contend in the Big Ten.
Second half outlook:
Though the Wolverines currently sit under .500, they have the potential to finish out the conference season on a much higher note.
Michigan should have winnable games left against Ohio State (3-7), Minnesota (3-6) and Rutgers (1-9). It already defeated Indiana (5-5) and Nebraska (4-5) and has the ability to replicate those feats, even though the Wolverines will go on the road where they have yet to win a game this year. They were within striking distance of Wisconsin (8-1) and Michigan State (5-4) in Madison and East Lansing, respectively, and playing at home in those rematches could provide the difference. That leaves Northwestern (7-2) and Purdue (6-3) as likely losses.
Last season, Michigan started strong and then fell apart. This season, a reversal could be in store.
Predicted record: 11-7