The Michigan men’s basketball team is three games into its Big Ten season, and there are already questions swirling about the Wolverines’ (1-2 Big Ten, 11-5 overall) conference fate this season.
Projected to be a relatively average team before the year began, Michigan made a fairly big impression instead, going 10-3 in non-conference play and capturing a 2K Classic championship in New York City. Aside from obvious hiccups at South Carolina, against Virginia Tech and at then-No. 2 UCLA, the Wolverines combined a recalibrated defense with emerging offensive options to notch a double-digit win tally — a majority of which were decided by at least 20 points.
Sophomore forward Moritz Wagner and redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson have played the role of breakout starters, taking the place of the expected pair of seniors Duncan Robinson and Mark Donnal. Wagner and Wilson have burst onto the scene in full force, averaging 11.9 points and 10.3 points, respectively, and serving as a reliable combination of big men. Robinson and Donnal, meanwhile, have become dual sixth men, boosting Michigan with a strong dose of energy and effort off the bench while averaging 8.8 and six points, respectively.
The cast of characters fit their parts and created a cohesive unit that steamrolled its non-conference opponents, though admittedly they weren’t elite foes. But Big Ten play has been an entirely different story.
The first two weeks of the conference season have been filled with surprises across the board. Notably, Minnesota already has more wins and Indiana already has almost as many losses as they had all of last year with three and two, respectively. What is most striking about the situation the Wolverines find themselves in is just how easily it could be so different.
In a seven-day span, Michigan faced off against Iowa on the road and Penn State and Maryland at home. In falling 86-83 in overtime to the Hawkeyes and 77-70 to the Terrapins on opposite ends of a 72-69 win over the Nittany Lions, the Wolverines revealed a crucial flaw that could potentially determine their fate this season.
“The edge that a lot of great teams have has been lacking in some games, and there’s no way we can win without that edge,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “There’s just no way.”
In Iowa City, the outcome of the game may have gone down to the wire, but Michigan had set the tone much earlier, and not in a good way. While Iowa notched a 53.3 shooting percentage from the floor in the first half, the Wolverines made just 40 percent of their shots. Michigan had Wilson and his 19 points in the stanza to thank for keeping the Wolverines within three at the halftime break.
While Michigan turned the tables on the Hawkeyes in the second half, rediscovering its shooting stroke with a 51.6 shooting percentage, key defensive mistakes and late-game mismanagements downed the Wolverines in overtime. It didn’t help that they couldn’t stop Iowa guard Peter Jok from going off for 25 points, including four threes. Not even Wilson’s career day of 28 points and 14 rebounds could save Michigan in the end.
When the Wolverines returned to Ann Arbor to take on Penn State, they brought those shooting woes back with them. Struggling to establish itself early in the ballgame, Michigan shot 42.3 percent from the floor and knocked down just one 3-pointer on 10 attempts. The offense looked stagnant all half, as the Wolverines failed to spread the floor, move the ball and make good decisions. Beilein could be seen on the sideline growing more and more irritated every time a low-percentage shot went up early in the shot clock, only to clank off the rim and bounce out.
It took until the halfway mark of the second stanza for Michigan to turn its fortunes around. Following an impassioned speech from senior wing Zak Irvin at the media timeout, the Wolverines put together a 20-6 run kicked off by a quick five points from Robinson and punctuated by an alley-oop slam from Wilson to take the lead. Irvin then put his money where his mouth was, pairing with senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. to score Michigan’s final 10 points and close out the comeback victory.
Though the Wolverines managed to pull out the win in the end, it very easily could have gone the other way, a fact that was apparent to the team the following day.
“We gotta have that sense of urgency from the tip, and it can’t be a reaction to going down,” Robinson said. “I think we’ve done it well some games. … But it’s gotta be an everyday mindset, every game mindset.”
Less than 72 hours after that grand escape, Michigan put itself in the position of needing to replicate the feat against Maryland. While posting another 40-percent shooting performance in the first half, the Wolverines also let the Terrapins bully them around in the paint. They fell behind by nine points at the break — the largest halftime margin of the three games.
Over the course of the second half, Michigan attempted to generate enough momentum to mount a second straight comeback. Scratching and clawing their way back into the game, the Wolverines narrowed the deficit to three or fewer points multiple times, but each time they did, Maryland had a response at the ready. Eventually, Michigan simply ran out of gas.
“We had some moments there where we don’t play with the same IQ, the intensity that you need,” Beilein said. “It just bites you in this game. … What was tough was when we made a big play and cut it down, they made one right back. It’s hard to keep doing that.”
In their opening week of Big Ten play, the Wolverines played three close contests in which they sat back and let the opponent take the driver’s seat. And as a result, they sit just four points away from a winless start.
After the turbulent week, Irvin declared that Michigan can’t afford to wait to be “punched in the mouth” in order to fire up its engine. In a conference season as unpredictable as this one is shaping up to be, the Wolverines would be wise to heed his advice. Until they learn how to execute from start to finish, the questions about their destiny this year won’t be going anywhere.