EAST LANSING — Winning a road game against a higher-ranked rival requires 40 minutes of intensity, 40 minutes of physicality, 40 minutes of mental stability.
For the Michigan men’s basketball team, maintaining that required level of intensity in any game has been an issue all season. It’s led to defensive breakdowns, a bevy of costly turnovers and a handful of blown second-half leads.
Saturday’s matchup against No. 10 Michigan State was no different. Despite a strong showing in a hostile road environment against Indiana only one week prior, despite a season-high three-game winning streak, despite a chance for an upset win to launch itself back into NCAA Tournament consideration, the Wolverines once again fell short in the second half. Michigan trailed by just four at halftime, but after a slow start to the second half, the Spartans were able to pull away to win, 83-67.
“First half, we were punching, fighting, clawing, scratching,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “Second half, we backed off. And that cannot happen.”
The Wolverines kept the game close in the first half due in large part to the hustle plays that Howard alluded to. They shot just 36.1% from the floor, but nine offensive rebounds and nine Michigan State turnovers allowed them to attempt seven more shots than the Spartans.
There were still defensive breakdowns leading to open 3-pointers for guard Max Christie and forward Malik Hall, but Michigan also had its fair share of standout defensive plays. Intercepted passes by both freshman forward Moussa Diabate and graduate guard DeVante’ Jones led to a crowd-quieting dunk and an and-one layup, respectively.
At the start of the second half, though, those hustle plays were nowhere to be found. The Wolverines came out flat while Michigan State surged, and the Spartans’ lead quickly ballooned to 15.
Instead of offensive rebounds leading to second-chance points for Michigan was a clogged paint and an inability to finish at the rim. Rather than turnovers leading to transition baskets, it was Michigan State who took advantage of offensive miscues; 20 of its 28 transition points came in the second half.
“When you look at some loose balls they beat us to, 50/50, whether it’s an offensive rebound that led to a layup, or a dunk, or a 3-point shot, or whether it was not sprinting back in transition,” Howard said. “When you allow a team to score 28 points in transition, that’s unacceptable.”
Lapses in communication led to open 3-pointers down the stretch, while the Wolverines struggled to contain guard A.J. Hoggard in the pick-and-roll game. Michigan never rediscovered the same energy it had in the first half, leading to an inability to string together stops that doomed the Wolverines’ comeback chances.
“You can’t cut into a lead unless you stop them,” sophomore center Hunter Dickinson said. “You just keep trading baskets, the lead is never going to shrink. And so for us, we just got to continue to keep buying in defensively and continue to get stops because I mean, I think we can score, but our biggest problem right now is just not being locked in on defense for a full 40 minutes.”
Saturday presented a golden opportunity for Michigan to build off the momentum of its longest winning streak of the season and pick up its second quadrant 1 win in three games — instead, the Wolverines failed to capitalize.
It won’t be the last time they have the chance to win a game of a similar magnitude, but in order to avoid the same outcome as Saturday, Michigan can’t come out flat in the second half. The Wolverines have to want it more and play like it for a full 40 minutes. Even though they will have opportunities like Saturday again, time is quickly running out.
“Sometimes we just have some mental lapses that open the game up for the other team and I think today was another example of that,” Dickinson said.
“(It’s) something that we need to fix before we want to make any run at anything.”