Basketball is a game of runs, characterized by teams trading stretches of control. But for the Michigan men’s basketball team as of late, they’ve only found themselves on the wrong side of those scoring tears.
The Wolverines continually watch opponents sprint ahead while struggling to string together hot stretches of their own. Blistering runs rendered Michigan lifeless in its back-to-back loses to Penn State and Purdue. In both games, its inability to respond to late first-half runs put the contests out of reach.
The Nittany Lions’ punishing 18-0 run at the end of Sunday’s first half turned what was once a tight race into the Wolverines getting lapped. Defensive breakdowns, including struggles defending the pick-and-roll, slow rotations and ineptitude contesting 3-pointers allowed Penn State to find its rhythm. Failing to generate clean looks on the other end, they faced too many hurdles as the run intensified.
“I’m like, ‘Yo, is it one of those days?’ ” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said of a high-bouncing 3-pointer early in the Nittany Lions’ run. “After that, they just went on a spiral where they were able to feed (off) the energy from the crowd.”
Sure, playing on the road is a factor. The energy of each bucket crescendos off the previous one, blazing the trail for domineering stretches of play. But even once the crowd calmed during the halftime break, the bleeding only continued. Penn State opened the second half on a 15-4 run. Combined, the Nittany Lions’ 33-6 run in the middle of the game turned what was once a 31-30 game into a blowout loss.
A 33-6 stretch on the road, however, toes the line between a big-time run and utter domination. A run is an understatement — the Wolverines were simply getting manhandled.
In its loss to the Boilermakers, Michigan’s failure to counterpunch runs was even more evident despite the run being less jaw-dropping. The two teams traded blows for much of the contest, but the Boilermakers’ 15-0 run late in the first half gave them the edge.
While Howard pointed to the crowd’s energy when explaining Penn State’s run, Purdue’s run took Michigan out of the game on its home floor. The Boilermakers had no crowd energy to feed off of as one bucket snowballed into the next, but they still managed to drain the Wolverines’ energy in the process.
Michigan got out of sorts so quickly — and returned to trading baskets throughout much of the game thereafter — that it wasn’t clear what hit them until after the final whistle.
“I didn’t even know they went on a 15-0 run,” junior center Hunter Dickinson said after the Purdue loss.
And he wasn’t alone. Graduate guard Joey Baker, sitting beside Dickisnon postgame, spoke simultaneously as Dickinson made that statement:
“Yea, me neither.”
After learning of the run, Dickinson tabbed it as the spot where the Wolverines probably lost the game. That checks out; Michigan didn’t build its own legitimate scoring run in the second half. And while it kept Purdue from spiraling offensively again, it wasn’t enough to overcome the hole it dug itself into.
No matter how consistently the Wolverines score in stretches throughout games, failure to string stops together has kept them from utilizing scoring runs in their favor. In its last four games, Michigan hasn’t amassed a scoring run larger than 8-0, nor has its largest scoring run been greater than those of its opponents.
Wins are built on runs, and runs are built on rhythm. Sitting at an 11-10 overall record and 5-5 in the conference, the Wolverines have been anything but rhythmic. Constantly being on the wrong end of scoring runs highlights that struggle.
“I feel like they got in rhythm,” freshman wing Jett Howard said of Penn State’s run. “It’s hard to stop a team that’s in rhythm already … so it was tough.”
Down by as many as 32 points, it was tough indeed for Michigan. The Wolverines let teams find their groove but rarely find their own — and that’s the name of the game. Because basketball is a game of runs.
And Michigan is barely walking.