Colin Castleton rose up and released a 3-pointer. The ball arced through the air before coming to an unsightly halt, lodging itself in the crook between the backboard and rim.
You’d be hard-pressed to script a more apt ending for the Michigan men’s basketball team’s 74-59 loss to Iowa on Friday night. The Wolverines went 9-for-28 for the field in the first half and were barely better in the second, shooting 32.3 percent and scoring 0.81 points per possession against the Big Ten’s worst defense in adjusted efficiency.
For Michigan, the game was thrown into chaos at the start. With both junior center Jon Teske and sophomore forward Isaiah Livers in foul trouble, the Wolverines sputtered, and the Hawkeyes ran off a 21-2 first-half run.
Michigan never recovered from the resulting 13-point halftime deficit. But its second loss can only partly be explained by foul trouble. For 40 minutes, the Wolverines couldn’t hit a shot.
“Especially in the second half and even in the first half, we were just missing,” said freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis. “I felt like there were some not-so-good shots that we took that were tough to make, but then there was also a lot of great shots that we didn’t make.”
Iowa’s defense is by no means its biggest strength — it’s 96th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom. But not all bad defenses are created equal. The Hawkeyes are one of just two teams in the Big Ten that play a significant amount of zone defense, a tactic which requires a different set of rules to crack.
To beat a zone defense, a team must move in order to get quality shots. Then it needs to knock them down. Michigan was unable to do either.
“We had to take a lot of threes at the end,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “We didn’t get many good looks. They were really honest, and then sometimes we didn’t position ourselves or have the patience to get good looks.”
The Wolverines missed many of the good looks they did get. With nine minutes left and a chance to cut Iowa’s lead to four, sophomore guard Jordan Poole pump-faked into an open three from straight on. It bounced off the front rim.
But too often Michigan stagnated, content to fire long 3-pointers over the zone instead of taking the time to pick it apart. Late in the game, down 67-56, junior guard Zavier Simpson — a 27 percent 3-point shooter — missed a 24-footer with 22 seconds left on the shot clock.
Hawkeye forward Tyler Cook grabbed the rebound, but Brazdeikis poked it loose. Instead of setting up a play, Brazdeikis passed to Livers, who took a contested wing three with his feet not yet set. Clank.
The Wolverines took 33 threes Friday. They made eight.
“We have this habit of playing at the NBA 3-point line, playing really deep, and shooting NBA threes when we could possibly shoot college threes,” Beilein said. “If you guys have any secret on how to break it, I’d like your help. We can’t get guys to move against the zone.”
This was always a losable game for Michigan. On top of all the usual aphorisms about winning on the road in the Big Ten, Iowa’s offense ranks 10th in the country. And while the Hawkeyes’ defense is usually poor, the length and size of their zone can frustrate a team unfamiliar with it.
“It bothers everybody,” Beilein said. “You don’t see it a lot, and then they go down and they’re really good in their zone. Their length in their zone is really good, and they just do some things in their zone and they made it tough for us.”
Still, the Wolverines went on the road and held a high-powered offense to an acceptable 1.02 points per possession. Zone or not, foul trouble or not, Carver-Hawkeye Arena or not, they had their chances to win.
If not for one area of minor importance: They couldn’t score.
Over its last five games, Michigan is scoring just 61.2 points per game on 37-percent shooting and has fallen to ninth in the Big Ten in scoring. It’s hard to pinpoint the main culprit, either — most of the Wolverines’ usual contributors are putting up stat lines vaguely similar — but lower than — their season totals. The drop in efficiency has been a team-wide phenomenon.
“We just have ups and downs throughout the season,” Simpson said. “We just have to fix them.”
The lack of one discernable issue makes those downs that much harder to fix. Before the season, Michigan’s hopes rested on an elite defense and getting just enough from an offense with few established playmakers or shooters. But all of that was said before the Wolverines started out 20-2 and rocketed past all of those expectations.
Michigan’s offense has fallen to 42nd in adjusted efficiency. Fourteen of the past 17 national champions ranked 15th or higher, and the worst title-winning offense during that span was 39th.
If the Wolverines are to reach the upside their defense provides, they will, at some point, need to score the ball.