With a three-second difference between the shot and game clock, the Michigan men’s basketball team was looking to put an underwhelming first-half performance behind them.
Despite their struggles, the Wolverines were only down seven points as grad-student guard Mike Smith initiated the offense — or, more accurately, tried to initiate the offense. Blanketed by Minnesota’s Marcus Carr and with the passing lanes obstructed, Smith dribbled his way into a shot-clock violation to close out the first half.
The possession was emblematic of Michigan’s offensive struggles in Saturday’s 75-57 loss. The Wolverines entered the match-up averaging 82 points per game — a mark they hit exactly in their first meeting with the Golden Gophers — but only managed 57 this time around. It’s no coincidence that Michigan’s lowest-scoring performance accompanied a season-high 20 turnovers. Ten days after bludgeoning Minnesota offensively, the Wolverines looked completely out of sync.
“I thought we did a much better job of setting our rules on the defensive end of it,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. “I kept telling our guys, ‘We look like we’re playing prevent-defense like in football.’ We were just holding back and trying not to foul. We needed to be more aggressive, and our guys trusted it and believed it. It starts with the ball pressure, that’s the key. Guys really ratcheted that up, helped each other out and scrambled instead of just defending one-on-one.”
Added Michigan coach Juwan Howard: “Minnesota did a very good job defensively of being disruptive. Also some of the turnovers were the fault on our end of not making good decisions with the basketball, forcing something, plays where they thought the guys were open but were not open.”
In the first matchup, freshman center Hunter Dickinson exploded for 28 points and went 12-of-15 from the floor. This time though, the Gophers doubled the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Week to greater success, limiting him to just nine points. Minnesota’s defense forced the ball out of Dickinson’s hands, but instead of finding open teammates on the perimeter like he usually does, he was turning the ball over.
“What I saw was (that) he was trying to make plays that were not there,” Howard said. “This is a good learning tool for him to go back and watch the film, which we will. Just get his input on what he saw and how he can make better decisions with the basketball.”
Minnesota also kept sophomore wing Franz Wagner quiet. Wagner had reached double-digit point totals in the last five games, but was held to just eight thanks in large part to the Gophers’ Gabe Kalscheur.
“I think Gabe Kalscheur is the best perimeter defender in the league,” Pitino said. “He showed that today with Wagner. Wagner’s a guy who can play at the next level, he’s got size on Gabe but he stuck with it.”
The absence of senior guard Eli Brooks, who missed the game with a foot injury, also impacted the Wolverines’ offense. Without Brooks to alleviate ball-handling responsibilities, the burden fell solely on Smith. While Smith leads the team in assists, Brooks is right behind him and has more experience running Howard’s offense.
“(Brooks) is a facilitator, he’s a threat,” Livers said. “His IQ is on a different level. He sets some off the ball away screens that get shooters open, gets himself open. Makes some great plays. He knows how to calm the offense, has great pace to his game. So he’s an everything guy for us. Losing a guy like Eli Brooks can’t go unnoticed.”
For the first time this season, Michigan’s high-powered offense was brought to its knees. The combination of the Gophers’ game plan and the void left by Brooks proved too much to overcome. How the Wolverines correct an offense that looked rudderless at times will go a long way in determining whether they can bounce back from their first loss.