Off the back of a three-game Big Ten win streak, the Michigan men’s basketball team had a chance to vault itself back into NCAA Tournament talks on Saturday. With a win against No. 10 Michigan State, the Wolverines could have entered the Big Ten title race and cemented the prior two weeks as a launching pad for the rest of the season.
Instead, the worst of Michigan resurfaced. Horrid 3-point shooting, defensive lapses and easy turnovers dominated a second half where it all fell apart.
“When you look at some loose balls they beat us to, 50/50, whether it’s an offensive rebound that led to a layup, or a dunk, or a 3-point shot, or whether it was not sprinting back in transition,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “When you allow a team to score 28 points in transition, that’s unacceptable.”
The Wolverines’ prior two weeks, with wins against NET-ranked No. 99 Maryland, No. 30 Indiana and No. 79 Northwestern now seem hollow.
The Terrapins are struggling, having already fired their coach. The win over the Hoosiers came three days after they earned their biggest win in years, and in a week where they played three games. The Wildcats, who are the second-worst team in the Big Ten standings, pushed Michigan to the limit in Ann Arbor and only lost by two points.
Instead of a launching point for a return to the Wolverines’ preseason hopes and expectations, the week fell in line with midseason expectations — beating up on the conference’s bottom-dwellers and upsetting a mid-tier team.
Only four of the remaining 11 games on the Wolverines’ schedule sit below them in the Big Ten standings. Only three are against opponents lower than them in Kenpom’s rankings. There are only a few games left in the season for them to find themselves.
Before the Michigan State game, sophomore forward Terrance Williams II said:
“We learned from our losses,” Williams said. “And we learned how we are going to get over that hump the next time it comes around.”
Saturday’s lesson was harsh, a visceral reminder that Michigan still hasn’t discovered its identity. Sophomore center Hunter Dickinson put his finger on it in the postgame:
“Sometimes we just have some mental lapses that open the game up for the other team and I think today was another example of that,” Dickinson said. “(It’s) something that we need to fix before we want to make any run at anything.”
The problem is that there’s not much time for Michigan to learn lessons from losses. Taking care of business against Nebraska and Penn State won’t put it in the NCAA Tournament, for which ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had the Wolverines in the First Four Out prior to Saturday’s loss. They need to learn lessons while also punching above their weight.
That’s a skill Michigan hasn’t displayed all season.
Winning four games in a row in the Big Ten is incredibly difficult, and beating your 10th-ranked rival on the road is equally hard. But the manner in which the Wolverines folded doesn’t indicate that they’ve changed.
With a matchup on Tuesday at home against Nebraska, there’s a chance for them to reset by focusing on the weaknesses that plagued them on Saturday. Then, it’s two games against No. 6 Purdue in five days, chances for Michigan to pick up a signature win.
A chance to punch above its weight. If the last two weeks are any indication, the Wolverines will fall short — flirting with the fringes of the bubble instead of playing their way into the tournament.