After two embarrassing home defeats — Tuesday against Indiana, 80-67, Saturday against Michigan State, 89-73, neither of them even half as close as the score indicated — the Michigan men’s basketball team shouldn’t be worried about losing. It shouldn’t even be worried about being in a suddenly precarious NCAA Tournament position.
The bigger concern is that Michigan was run out of its own building twice in one week.
Two issues are in play here. One is that the Wolverines aren’t nearly good enough. Their coach, John Beilein, admitted that to begin his postgame press conference Saturday. Michigan has played without senior guard Caris LeVert for 10 games, and it survived for a while — escaping Minnesota by five, Rutgers by 11 and Penn State by seven, and even upset then-No. 3 Maryland — but now the injury is starting to take its toll. Without their most prolific scorer, best individual defender and captain, the Wolverines had no answer for either Indiana or Michigan State.
In 14 games played this season, LeVert was the team-leading scorer in eight, the team-leading assist man in eight and the team-leading rebounder in four. The Wolverines started 6-2 in his absence, but any notion that they are the same team with him that they are without him has been disproven.
This issue of not being good enough is the one Beilein blames for the past two losses. He shot down any notion of his team lacking leadership, mental toughness or any other intangible quality related to success.
“Our kids are trying everything that they got,” Beilein said. “Everything they got. Those are typical excuses. I told them the same thing at Indiana. They’re so much better than us. … We gotta get better. We just gotta get better.”
Moreover, Beilein thinks this problem is fixable.
“It’s not about leadership right now,” he said. “It’s about everybody just (continuing to work) and persistence. Time is a friend of truth. Just persistence at doing the right things. Just trying to get better.”
Beilein will help his team get better, as he has shown he can. Michigan has had more ground to make up with less time remaining, and has done it. That ability shouldn’t be questioned.
Michigan’s bigger problem right now, while Beilein may deny it, is that it didn’t just lose its past two games on its home court. It got embarrassed.
With 11 minutes to go in the second half Saturday — still a quarter of the game remained — Michigan State’s Matt McQuaid drilled an open 3-pointer from the corner. On the next possession, the Spartans’ big man, Matt Costello, jumped in front of a pass and took it the distance for a dunk, laughing deliriously into the TV camera on his way down.
“You’ve got them laughing at us on our home court,” said junior forward Zak Irvin. “In these past two games, teams have just punked us, and we can’t let that happen. We gotta learn from that.”
Michigan called timeout, and when it did, Costello ran toward Denzel Valentine and locked arms with him. Michigan fans started to file out of Crisler Center, a thousand or so every few minutes until the game ended.
Beilein can turn losses into wins, but he can’t keep things respectable when they’re about to get ugly. Saturday’s game was 69-42 at that point, and the Spartans kept the gas pedal down until a hard-earned “Go Green, Go White!” chant echoed from the rafters.
At one point in the second half, Irvin had finally seen enough. During a timeout, he lit into his team on the bench, with another double-digit blowout loss looming.
“Just upset,” Irvin said later. “Just frustrated with these past two games we’ve had. Just trying to fire up the guys and blowing off some steam. Obviously the game wasn’t going our way, but I didn’t want anyone to just lay down and let them walk all over us.”
Michigan State did. And that might be Michigan’s bigger problem. Because in a hundred matchups in East Lansing, no matter what happened, no matter who was on either team, the Spartans would never, ever, ever let the Wolverines do the same thing.
So Michigan has to fix that, too. And there, Zak Irvin is going to need some help.
With 14:02 left in the game and the score already out of hand, Irvin drove to the hoop, drew a foul on Michigan State’s Gavin Schilling and scored the basket. He pumped his fists and roared, begging his team to follow his lead and make it a game again.
“We were getting our butt kicked the whole game, and I just didn’t want anyone to give up, because this is Michigan State,” Irvin said. “They were laughing at us. (Indiana) was laughing at us. We’re at home. We gotta be able to protect home court. For us not to care, that’s something that can’t happen. We’re Michigan. We gotta take pride in that.”
Instead, the Spartans scored 13 of the next 15, culminating in Costello’s dunk.
Irvin made a similar play at the 6:48 mark, driving around a defender, eluding another and floating a hook shot into the hoop. Again, he tried to fire up his team.
Instead, the Spartans scored six straight points, inching toward their largest lead of the game.
Irvin cannot win games like Saturday’s by himself, but he did everything he could to at least make it respectable. He needs some help, though. Maybe from LeVert, when he comes back. Maybe from Walton, who carried the team for a couple of games in January but struggled last week. Maybe from another player. From someone.
“We really just need to do some soul-searching,” Irvin said. “We gotta get back on track. It’s been a tough week for us, like I’ve said, and no one’s going to feel sorry for us.”
The Wolverines themselves refuse to make excuses such as LeVert’s injury. Beilein blames the talent gap. Irvin blames the lack of toughness. In reality, a little of both probably went into the two losses this week.
Michigan can fix the first problem, little by little. But the second, as Irvin knows, needs some attention.
Lourim can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @jakelourim.