Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein has repeatedly said his team is a “long way from being good,” and the Wolverines showed what he meant Tuesday.
In an 82-58 drubbing at the hands of No. 19 Southern Methodist — Michigan’s third non-conference loss of the young season — the Wolverines’ glaring weaknesses were on full display.
There’s still time for Michigan to grow — it has four straight home games against low-tier opponents with losing records — but it could be in for a rude awakening at the start of Big Ten play if these questions aren’t answered soon.
Here are five things we learned from Tuesday’s loss.
1. The bigs still have a long way to go.
After a month of tinkering, Beilein has finally settled on sophomore Ricky Doyle at the ‘5’ position, with freshman Moritz Wagner as the first man off the bench. But stability in the rotation still hasn’t translated to stability on the floor, and the SMU loss was a prime example.
Mustang big man Jordan Tolbert scored 23 points on 11-for-12 shooting, including an astounding nine dunks. The Wolverines had no answer for him in the paint, allowing numerous alley-oops and wide-open lanes.
SMU also dominated Michigan on the glass, grabbing 45 rebounds to the Wolverines’ 20. Wagner and Doyle are clearly still Michigan’s best options in the post, but that lack of defense simply won’t cut it in the Big Ten.
2. Caris LeVert can’t do it all every night.
There’s no question that senior guard Caris LeVert is the focal point of the Wolverines’ offense. He leads Michigan in scoring with 17.7 points per game, and he has excelled as the lead guard in Beilein’s offense since junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. injured his ankle a week ago.
But for the second straight year, the Mustangs shut down LeVert, limiting him to 1-for-13 shooting and just five points — his first single-digit scoring performance of the season.
LeVert’s offense has been able to carry the team to victories against Texas and North Carolina State and kept Michigan within striking distance for most of a lopsided loss to No. 12 Xavier. But it’s unrealistic to expect even a player of his caliber to be “on” every night. The Wolverines received a few meaningful contributions from the rest of the lineup, but they need to take more of the pressure off LeVert.
3. The Wolverines miss Walton…
In the first game and a half since Walton injured his ankle against N.C. State, Michigan looked like it might be fine without him. The Wolverines held off a late charge to beat the Wolfpack in Raleigh and rolled over Houston Baptist with LeVert playing point guard a week later.
But Tuesday was a different story, as Walton’s presence was sorely missed on both sides of the ball. The Wolverines’ offense suffered from spacing issues all night without its floor general, and Michigan could certainly have used his 4.6 rebounds per game. His absence likely wouldn’t have accounted for the 24-point difference in the game, but it’s safe to say the Wolverines would love to have him back soon.
4. …But other players are starting to step up.
Michigan’s offense struggled to stay in the game Tuesday, but it did receive contributions from a few players who have been largely quiet in the early-season box scores.
Sophomore guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, who was playing in Walton’s spot in the lineup and hasn’t been a prolific scorer in his career, scored the Wolverines’ first six points and finished the game with 15.
On an even more encouraging note, junior forward Zak Irvin made his biggest stride yet in his recovery from September back surgery. Irvin had struggled to get his shot going early in the season, but he flirted with a double-double against SMU with nine points and nine assists. If he can keep up the improvements, Irvin could be Michigan’s X-factor going forward.
5. BOLD PREDICTION: This won’t be Michigan’s only 20-point loss this season.
It’s important to note that the Wolverines haven’t had more than one 20-point loss in a season since the 2007-08 season, Beilein’s first year at the helm. But Michigan has a tendency to let at least one road Big Ten game get out of hand — the Wolverines lost by 19 at Ohio State in 2015, by 18 at Iowa in 2014 and by 23 at Michigan State in 2013.
Unless the defense and post play drastically improve over the next few months, this year will be no exception. Even if the Wolverines can get back to full health, they have to face tough, physical Big Ten teams with huge size advantages on the road, including No. 6 Maryland and No. 11 Purdue. A home game against No. 1 Michigan State will also be a difficult test for the Wolverines.