In the days since the Michigan men’s basketball team loss to Maryland on Saturday, the word “frustration” has been used relatively often around Crisler Center — and rightly so.
After all, the Wolverines (1-2 Big Ten, 11-5 overall) have dropped two of their last three games by a combined margin of just 10 points.
Michigan isn’t getting blown out by any means, which arguably makes it even more frustrating. And it forces one to wonder what the team could be if a new defensive approach and new offensive weapons molded together into a polished product.
The games are there for the taking. The Wolverines just have been incapable of taking them recently.
“Now, we gotta get it, there’s no excuse,” said senior guard Andrew Dakich. “There’s no, ‘OK you guys are young, you shouldn’t understand this.’ But we’re a veteran group.
“We’ve got seniors, juniors and a team that went to the NCAA Tournament last year. It’s time to step up. There’s no excuses anymore.”
On Wednesday night, Michigan will have an opportunity to back up Dakich’s words in a matchup with Illinois (1-2, 11-5).
The Fighting Illini are essentially in the same boat as the Wolverines.
Like Michigan, they are a veteran team that returned eight upperclassmen. But — also like Michigan — Illinois has yet to produce the results that could be expected from a roster hardened by Big Ten play for multiple seasons.
The Fighting Illini’s biggest threat is senior guard Malcolm Hill, who leads the team in points and rebounds with 18.8 and 6.2 per game, respectively. Yet even that kind of production hasn’t been nearly enough to carry Illinois through the beginning of conference play.
Through their first three games, the Fighting Illini notched a win against Ohio State but also lost to Maryland and No. 25 Indiana by 25 and 16 points, respectively.
The Wolverines haven’t fared much better themselves, as even some of their most promising players also contribute to their growing problems.
Individually, sophomore forward Moritz Wagner has enjoyed an uptick in production, as he is averaging 11.9 points while shooting 61.3 percent from the floor. Redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson’s newfound scoring ability has been an encouraging sign as well.
But with their emergence has also come a bit of confusion. In the past, there was no doubt that the offense would run through senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. or senior wing Zak Irvin. Now, though, that choice might not be so simple.
The matchup with Illinois could prove to be the first step toward some clarity in that phase.
“It’s good news and bad news,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “We have several guys that can score the ball now, especially with the emergence of DJ and Moe. We’re looking at that very much.
“That was a big part of our discussion today — what are we doing at shot clock time? We’re going to make sure the ball is in the right guy’s hands at shot clock time, and maybe it’s in nobody’s hands and we’re just playing ball and trusting what we do.”
The more pressing issue, though, is the ongoing struggle the Wolverines are having in attempting to adopt assistant coach Billy Donlon’s new defensive schemes.
After Saturday’s loss, Wagner was visibly frustrated, explaining that there are moments when Michigan seems to “fall asleep collectively.” And that is even more concerning given the simplicity of the system.
“(The defense) couldn’t be much simpler than it is right now,” Beilein said. “We’re doing a classic hedge. We’re tagging guys. We’re probably doing less than we’ve done before. We’re in the right places a lot of times, but we’re just not in there enough, in that right place.”
Through their first three Big Ten games, the Wolverines are allowing an average of 75.7 points per game. Yet back in November at Madison Square Garden — when Michigan arguably looked its best — it allowed an average of 57.5 against comparable teams such as Southern Methodist and Marquette.
The frustrations, then, as the Wolverines have alluded to plenty of times, boil down to the issues of consistency.
Illinois is the second-to-last team Michigan will face before the beginning of a month in which the Wolverines will play Michigan State, No. 18 Wisconsin and No. 25 Indiana twice apiece.
Consistency has been preached since the beginning of the season. But the time to talk about it is running out.