There are a lot of adjectives that describe Thursday night’s matchup between Michigan and Wisconsin.
Gritty. Streaky. Roller coaster.
And at the end of it all, the Wolverines (18-10 overall, 9-8 Big Ten) fell to Wisconsin (18-10, 11-6), 81-74, after an inconsistent offensive performance and an onslaught of drained 3-pointers by the Badgers.
Despite the spotty offense, the Wolverines embarked on plenty of electric scoring runs. But it was on defense where they struggled most.
Wisconsin shoots more 3-pointers than anyone else in the Big Ten, and the Wolverines fell behind when those shots started hitting. At times, Wisconsin’s lead seemed an uncrossable chasm, and Michigan seemed ill-equipped to stop it from growing.
“We did a very bad job of defending on the perimeter,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “Overall, our defense did not get enough stops. … Huge let down. On the entire team, as far as how we’re defending. And a poor job from me on preparing our guys, so I’ll take the blame on it. I didn’t prepare them very well.”
The Wolverines got off to a slow start on both ends of the court without junior guard Eli Brooks, who was sidelined after sustaining a nose injury against Purdue last Saturday. After settling into the game, the offense seemed to find its rhythm after making some quick shots, but it was a rhythm they fell in and out of throughout the course of the game. Michigan paid for that inconsistency late in the game.
“We made a couple runs in the second half, and then they made some tough shots,” freshman wing Franz Wagner said. “I don’t think we lost the game in the second half. I think we just didn’t play like we have to in the first half. They got into a rhythm, and they made us pay at the end.”
But, as Wisconsin slowed down, Michigan gradually made its way back into the game, fighting back from a 14-point deficit to draw even with 15 minutes remaining in regulation. But again, the game slipped out of its hands.
With 10 minutes left, the game was again within reach for the Wolverines. But even when the game was close, or felt close, Michigan just could not do enough to control the game the way it needed. The Wolverines couldn’t get shots to fall when they needed them most. And they couldn’t stop Wisconsin from sinking dagger after dagger.
“We always talk about getting stops and getting out for wide open dunks, layups, threes and getting to the free throw line,” sophomore guard David DeJulius said. “We didn’t get an opportunity to play pace-and-space.”
The pieces are there. The offensive power Michigan put on against Michigan State and Indiana. The gritty defense the Wolverines played against Rutgers and Northwestern. When Michigan is able to put those things together, it has a chance at beating any team in college basketball. The Wolverines proved that in the Bahamas, and over the five-game winning streak that just ended.
But against Wisconsin on Thursday night, Michigan just couldn’t piece together enough to win.
It was, more than anything else, a matter of consistency.
And the Wolverines couldn’t seem to find it.