COLUMBUS — When Juwan Howard wants his team to talk, he’s not shy about letting them know.
In his eyes, communication is among the most important facets of the game. Now in his first season as the Michigan men’s basketball coach, he’s made it an integral part of his program — both on and off the floor.
But against No. 23 Ohio State (20-9 overall, 10-8 Big Ten) on Sunday, poor communication kept the Wolverines on their heels. And when the game grew close in the second half, it was the Buckeyes who knocked down the timely shots. Contested or not, they canned six of their nine second-half 3-point attempts to dispatch the 19th-ranked Wolverines, 77-63.
“We’ve just got to communicate better,” junior guard Eli Brooks said, slumped against a wall deep inside the Schottenstein Center, a faded black and blue bruise dotting his right cheek. “A lot of open threes were off switches or not being in the right position, so just talking in your position and knowing where you’re supposed to be. (Howard) always talks about, ‘Talk your position so you can talk your way into it.’ ”
This isn’t the first time Michigan (18-11, 9-9) has grappled with communication problems. During a four-game losing streak in January, it was constantly cited as a pitfall. When the Wolverines allowed a season-worst 11 3-pointers against Wisconsin on Thursday, Howard was clear that his defense must be more vocal. Ohio State knocked down 11 shots from beyond the arc, too, and Brooks didn’t mince words as he addressed reporters after the game.
Now, it appears Michigan must reconquer an old demon in order to reach its ceiling.
Sunday presented a chance for the Wolverines to avenge a narrow February loss to the Buckeyes, who entered the afternoon with an identical conference record. And with the NCAA Tournament just three weeks away, Michigan couldn’t capitalize on the opportunity to secure a win over a team ranked higher in the NET.
“We don’t go into a hole and start hiding,” Howard said. “We don’t ask for a pity party. Our main objective is to figure out solutions and see how we can get better.”
After the Wolverines scored seven of the game’s first 10 points, Ohio State used a 22-11 run to give itself some breathing room. The Buckeyes’ five first-half 3-pointers were enough to take a three-point lead into the locker room.
“I don’t think we played poor defense for 40 minutes,” freshman wing Franz Wagner said. “I think we keep having bad stretches and that’s where we lose these games. So yeah, I think you gotta be more consistent during the game. Just guard 40 minutes.”
Despite the defensive lapses, Ohio State’s lead didn’t last long. The Wolverines used halftime pace adjustments to push the ball in transition, opening the half with a 9-2 spurt.
But after committing six fouls in the first six minutes, Michigan couldn’t sustain its momentum. Led by guard Duane Washington Jr., Ohio State scored 18 of the game’s next 26 points, extending its lead to six. Washington finished with 20 points, including a 5-of-7 mark from beyond the arc.
“Washington’s shots, I think, is where we messed up defensively,” Wagner said. “Him coming off screens, he’s been making us pay for that, cause we weren’t ready, weren’t communicating. Not everybody was aware of that, what’s happening on the floor.”
With the Wolverines in dire need of a spark, Wagner answered the call. He canned back-to-back long balls to tie the game, bringing the Buckeyes’ run to a screeching halt as part of an 18-point performance in which he also added 10 rebounds.
But once again, Michigan couldn’t keep its momentum going. The Buckeyes closed the game on a decisive 25-11 run, putting the nail in the Wolverines’ coffin.
Michigan entered this week riding a five-game winning streak — a stretch defined by a season-altering defensive turnaround. Puzzling enough, the Wolverines’ defense proved to be the open wound against Ohio State and the Badgers.
But through it all, one thing hasn’t wilted.
“(Our) confidence is at the same point as during the five game win streak,” Wagner said. “We know we can do it. We know we have everything we need. Just a matter of if we’re able to show what we can do.”
With the calendar now flipped to March, there’s little time to waste.