COLUMBUS — If you’ve tried predicting much about the Michigan men’s basketball team, you probably haven’t been too successful.
You’re not to blame, though. Coach John Beilein’s squad has been a mashup of different lineups and star performers on a nightly basis. The revolving door that has rested on Beilein’s psyche has revealed both the question marks and the potential for the Wolverines this season. It’s perhaps the lingering uncertainty that keeps him up at night.
The closest semblance of a hero in Monday night’s 71-62 loss to Ohio State was sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson. Did you guess that? Me neither, but no hero should have been required — win or loss.
Michigan was up by 20 points at one point, and the Buckeyes had no answers to combat the offensive onslaught. But just 19 second-half points by the Wolverines — their worst half output of the season thus far — provided Ohio State with more chances than it could have imagined, and Michigan paid the price.
“Anytime you lose in the Big Ten, but especially when you lose to your rival the way we did, it’s just frustrating,” said senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. “We just gotta go back to the drawing board.”
In their two-point loss to LSU in the Maui Invitational, the Wolverines faltered late, which overshadowed scintillating scoring outputs from junior Moritz Wagner and redshirt sophomore Charles Matthews. In the smackdown by North Carolina — a game that Michigan was expected to lose — underclassmen showed promising signs of composure on the road.
Against the Buckeyes on Monday night, Michigan was cruising and no star was needed.
Ohio State finished the half on a 7-0 run, closing the Wolverines’ lead to 13, injecting signs of life into an otherwise lulled crowd.
“I actually told them I’m glad we aren’t up by 20 at half,” Beilein said. “Because if they make a run, they just made a run. Now, let’s go out there with some purpose.”
That purpose was realized far too late. Right out of the gate, the Buckeyes went into overdrive. Ohio State hit seven quick field goals, while Michigan could hardly decipher how to put the ball in the basket. And after a 26-3 run — with a lone 3-pointer from Eli Brooks for the Wolverines — the Buckeyes were staring at their first lead all game with 12:29 to go.
“We couldn’t score and we couldn’t stop them,” Beilein said dejectedly. “This is something, it’s gonna be a journey all year for us until we grow our young kids, right? And our veterans embrace their new roles as being the guys, right? Being the guy that’s gotta make a shot, that’s gotta make a play at a certain time.
“Our freshmen and sophomores made some baskets, but there weren’t many in the second half, were there?”
Sure, Michigan quickly battled back to make it a tit-for-tat contest, but Ohio State knew it was the better team on the court then, and it wasn’t going to blow its comeback efforts. Jae’Sean Tate and Keita Bates-Diop were unflappable versus the Wolverines’ frontcourt, a response that wasn’t met in kind.
When CJ Jackson’s free throws gave the Buckeyes their final, unadulterated lead with 2:59 to go, it was a game of “hot potato” to resurrect the Wolverines, but no winners emerged.
“We like to play as a team, nobody wants to be considered a hero or playing hero ball,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “We just try to play within the offense, and we didn’t get good shots and passed up some good shots, too.”
Beilein has emphasized that it’s still early and that his team stumbled against the Buckeyes last year and rebounded. The players say they will have to have short-term memory about this game, but Michigan is already almost at the halfway point of its season.
That begs the question: When do results like this happen just too late?
Wolfe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ethanewolfe.