Off to a 7-6 start, it goes without saying that very little has gone right for the Michigan men’s basketball team this season. The expectations for the preseason No. 6 team in the country are nowhere near where they were in October.
But after the Wolverines’ 75-67 loss at Rutgers a week ago — their third in their last four games — Michigan coach Juwan Howard tried to remain positive.
“It’s so easy to try to point out like, ‘What’s missing from this group?’ ” Howard said after the game. “No leadership, no shooting, no defense. I have so much positive — I see so many great things. … I’m not going to be that coach … (to) point the finger at players.”
While Howard tried to express his confidence in his team, it’s clear he’s aware of the Wolverines’ many pressing flaws. He doesn’t have to point fingers at players either; they’re already aware of their issues.
But with over half the team currently in COVID-19 protocols and a bout with No. 25 Illinois on Friday, Michigan is losing valuable time to address its problems.
Regardless of whether or not the Wolverines are able to return to practice Thursday, when they are first eligible, they need to make a major course correction.
The Daily breaks down three areas in which Michigan will need to improve in order to turn around its season:
Entering the year, the loss of four of their five best 3-point shooters from a season ago left the Wolverines’ with a glaring preseason hole, and they’ve struggled accordingly.
Fifth-year guard Eli Brooks is the only returning player who has consistently shot from deep in his career, and he’s held up his end of the bargain. Most of the burden, though, has fallen on the shoulders of five-star freshman wing Caleb Houstan, who came in with the reputation of a sharpshooter.
But so far, Houstan hasn’t lived up to that billing, shooting just 31.3% from long range. Without consistent three point shooting, Michigan has struggled to space the floor effectively, making it easier for opponents to double team sophomore center Hunter Dickinson and prevent post touches.
“When we make shots it’s easier for Hunter to score,” Brooks said after the Rutgers loss. “I think we did a good job of playing through Hunter, we just didn’t capitalize on the shots. We know we can shoot the ball. We see it in drills. We just have to step up and make shots.”
As long as the Wolverines lack a perimeter scoring threat, their offense will lack balance, making it difficult to find easy shots. It’s not as though Houstan isn’t getting open looks; he just isn’t converting them. Howard, though, remains confident that the shooting will come.
“A lot has been on the fact that he isn’t making shots,” Howard said after a Dec. 4 win over San Diego State. “Caleb’s a young guy who’s a freshman and a lot has been asked of his role and he has embraced it. It’s a long season and you’re gonna have some times when the shot doesn’t go in.”
Howard’s first two teams both finished in the top 30 in adjusted defense according to KenPom. This year? The Wolverines are 49th. Sure, they lost some defensive talent, but graduate transfer guard DeVante’ Jones and multiple returning players were supposed to alleviate those losses.
Instead, those losses have only become more pronounced. Jones has struggled on the defensive end at times and more often than not, shoddy defense has been the driving force behind Michigan’s losses.
“We just gotta learn how to finish games and eliminate the mistakes,” Howard said on Jan. 3 “Every time that we have a defensive breakdown or mistake we always get hurt the wrong way. And that’s either with a three or a three-point play from our opponent at the wrong time. But that’s a part of learning how to win.”
Early in the season, it was Michigan’s interior defense that was most vulnerable. Now, missed rotations and overhelping has allowed teams to exploit the Wolverines on the outside, leading to blown second-half leads and opposing team-best shooting nights.
“We just didn’t make them feel us,” Brooks said after a Dec. 30 loss to Central Florida. “I don’t think we contested enough. They got comfortable. When you’re comfortable you make shots.”
Despite Brooks striking similar notes after losses to Minnesota and Rutgers, Howard has continued to promise that Michigan will get better on that end of the floor. The Wolverines are a young team, and the occasional defensive lapse was to be expected. But the issue is only getting worse. As long as this trend continues, winnable games will continue to slip away.
Inconsistent Point Guard Play
When Jones committed to Michigan as a graduate transfer, it was easy to make comparisons to last year’s graduate transfer point guard, Mike Smith. Many expected similar success. Smith, though, came into a much more experienced team and was afforded more time to adjust to Big Ten basketball; the expectations on Jones may have been too high.
As the season has progressed, Jones has grown more comfortable in his role, but he’s lacked the consistency the Wolverines need from the point guard position. His backup, freshman Frankie Collins, has suffered the same fate.
The offense often seems slow and stagnant, and while shooting woes contribute, it also has to do with Jones. Early in the season, he played too aggressively, leading to costly turnovers and fouls. As of late, he’s toned it down, and while it has resulted in some of his best games, he hasn’t yet found a balance. In the loss to Rutgers he failed to score on three attempts and tallied only two assists.
“I feel like I (have to) be a lot more aggressive,” Jones said after the loss to Central Florida. “And I’m not just talking about scoring. Just getting my teammates wide open looks, giving them stress-reliever buckets.”
While Jones has underwhelmed for a good chunk of the season, he’s made progress. Jones hasn’t committed more than two turnovers in a game since Dec. 1 and scored in double figures in three-straight games prior to Rutgers.
The Wolverines need Jones to be the player he was in those three games. He doesn’t need to be their leading scorer, but he needs to make open shots and distribute the ball effectively while limiting turnovers. If he can do that consistently, the point guard position won’t be the sore spot it has been thus far.
Michigan has far more problems to address than just these three, and it’s unlikely that the Wolverines will be able to fix all of them during the season. But if they fail to improve in these key areas, they’ll likely be on the outside looking in come March.