With three minutes left in the first half, Eli Brooks came around a screen to take what should have been a simple handoff pass from sophomore center Hunter Dickinson. But the fifth-year guard mishandled the ball and dribbled it off his foot and out of bounds, causing a turnover.
That was the theme for Michigan on Sunday night: making the routine look difficult.
The Wolverines couldn’t get out of their own way in their blowout 80-62 loss to Arizona, and self-inflicted wounds played a big role in the beatdown. All night, Michigan looked out of sorts and a multitude of problems never gave them the chance to get the offense going.
“We just got to take our time, take breaths,” Brooks said. “It sounds easy but we just got to relax more, let the game come to us and run the sets.”
Michigan turned the ball over 15 times and some were completely unforced. With just under 11 minutes remaining in the first half, freshman forward Moussa Diabate thought sophomore forward Terrance Williams was coming up from the corner to get the ball but Williams never moved and the play ended with Diabete sending a cross-court pass out of bounds with no one particularly close to being on the receiving end. On the next offensive possession, Dickinson fumbled a pass in the lane, and what should have been an easy layup led to a jump ball whistle that gave possession back to the Wildcats.
Early in the second half, Michigan tried to start mounting a comeback by feeding Dickinson in the post. But the Wildcats countered with a double team, forcing an errant pass from the big man that led to points in transition. Diabate tried his luck down low a couple minutes later but was met with equally stifling defense. He was quickly stripped and could only stand and watch as Arizona guard Dalen Terry flew down the court for a breakaway slam.
“I love the aggressiveness,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “But most importantly we have to be ‘smart-aggressive,’ and that’s something that we lacked this evening.”
The turnovers, though, were only part of the problem.
In the first half, there were three separate instances where Michigan was called for a charge, damaging its ability to do anything in transition.
The 3-point struggles also persisted with the Wolverines going just 1-for-14 from deep. Freshman forward Caleb Houstan, who had started the season strong with five threes in his first two games, went 0-for-5 from beyond the arc.
Michigan’s shots weren’t just missing, they were missing badly, sometimes hitting off the backboard. Where the Wildcats moved the ball smoothly and found open shooters for three and bigs down low for easy slams, many of Michigan’s possessions looked as if the players had never shared the court before. Lots of offensive trips looked disjointed and ended with one player using too much of the shot clock before putting up a flailing attempt while swarmed by defenders.
The discrepancy in team chemistry was evident as the Wolverines ended the game with just eight assists compared to Arizona’s 23.
“We just weren’t in our right spots offensively,” Howard said. “There were some sets that maybe three guys knew what we were going to run and two guys didn’t or four knew and one guy didn’t so we had a lot of mental breakdowns.”
As the Wildcats’ lead continued to climb, Michigan kept waiting for a run to get back in the game, but it never came. The number of errors piled up and there was no way for the Wolverines to escape out from under the mountain of problems they had created.
It’s early, but there is a lot of work to be done to fix this squad that’s a lot less polished than Howard’s team a year ago. During the offseason, the program bid farewell to four NBA-ready contributors, replacing them with six scholarship freshmen and a graduate transfer. So far, that inexperience is showing.
“I trust this team and I also trust the staff that we’re going to come back looking for solutions,” Howard said. “We’re a solution based group and we’re going to figure out how to get better.”