In the Michigan men’s basketball team’s two most recent losses entering Tuesday, the story was the same: defensive lapses by the Wolverines led to strong second-half shooting performances by their opponents, costing them two winnable games.
And they knew it.
The sentiment from both Michigan coach Juwan Howard and players was that it needed to improve defensively — and would — in order to turn around a season that had quickly entered a tailspin.
“We will get better on the defensive end,” Howard told reporters Monday. “We will continue to teach it, grow (at) it, continue to show it on film.”
But Tuesday against Rutgers, the Wolverines began the game just as they ended those two losses: flat. They looked anemic defensively, particularly on the perimeter, and never fully recovered, as the Scarlet Knights shot 47.8% from 3-point range — up from their season average of 30.6% — to hand Michigan a 75-67 loss.
“(They) made some deep, deep threes,” Howard said. “And they hit them early. …There are also some times where we did have a defensive breakdown to allow some open threes.”
Following the Wolverines’ Dec. 30 loss to Central Florida, fifth-year guard Eli Brooks said that the Knights’ shooters were able to get comfortable early, giving them confidence to knock down tougher shots later in the game.
The same rang true Tuesday night. Within the first four minutes of the game, Rutgers netted its first three 3-point attempts, all open shots that had resulted from defensive breakdowns. Twice in the first half, Michigan seemingly lost track of Scarlet Knights forward Ron Harper Jr. in transition, giving Rutgers’ best 3-point shooter two open looks from long range.
The Scarlet Knights got comfortable, and the tougher shots subsequently fell. Guard Geo Baker made a deep, contested 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down, while Harper did the same minutes later. Rutgers began 6-of-8 from deep, and less than 12 minutes into the game, the Wolverines found themselves down by 14.
“They made some shot-clock threes,” Brooks said. “They just made tough shots and carried on into later in the game.”
Michigan’s perimeter defense was never as shoddy as it was during those first four minutes, and the Scarlet Knights cooled down, but Rutgers was still able to find open looks when it needed them most.
Following a 6-0 Wolverines run to cut the deficit to seven with just under six minutes remaining, Baker drew in freshman guard Kobe Bufkin just enough on a drive to open up guard Caleb McConnell for a 3-pointer. Thirty seconds later, after Michigan converted on the other end, Rutgers guard Paul Mulcahy drew in two defenders at the elbow, leaving Baker wide open on the perimeter. Once again, he didn’t miss.
That 30 second stretch wasn’t a true dagger, but made the Wolverines’ comeback effort all the more difficult. Over the remaining five minutes, the Scarlet Knights’ lead never shrunk below nine until 34 seconds remained in the game.
Rutgers didn’t shoot as prolifically from deep as UCF, nor did it surge in the second half as both the Knights and Minnesota did. But after another game with very little defensive improvement, Howard was left with an identical message:
“Those are teachable moments and we’ll continue to keep teaching, growing. I trust we will get better.”