Three weeks of sluggishness finally caught up to the Michigan men’s basketball team.
The 20th-ranked Wolverines (8-5 Big Ten, 19-7 overall) suffered their worst loss the of the season Tuesday, falling at Northwestern, 61-52. After a rare quick start, Michigan went just 5-for-20 from the floor and 1-for-10 from beyond the arc in the second half, allowing the Wildcats to crawl back into the game and earn the victory.
Much of that can be credited to Northwestern’s matchup 2-3 zone, which halted the Wolverines to the point that they frequently looked lost offensively while the shot clock wore down. It was masterful adjustment by Wildcats’ coach Chris Collins, as Michigan tied its lowest scoring output of the season with 52 points.
“The Northwestern 2-3 zone is a completely different animal,” said Michigan coach John Beilein on a teleconference call Saturday afternoon. “We’re trying to match what they did and then unmatch what they did, and it was difficult.”
Those struggles were yet another example of the offensive stagnation that’s plagued the Wolverines recently. Opponents have found success with various defensive wrinkles against Michigan.
Nebraska, for example, routed the Wolverines by switching screens, which forced Michigan’s guards to make plays off the dribble instead of the usually-dangerous pick-and-pop action. Rutgers, Maryland and Purdue have all followed suit, holding the Wolverines to just over 65 points-per-game since Jan. 15.
“You need a great deal of veteran experience to adapt to the way we’re being played,” Beilein said. “I don’t think there are many teams in the country that are getting switched on every screen.
“Taking advantage of it has been difficult. You need to have your timing right, and the 30-second shot clock is a factor in how we’re attacking.”
The slump comes at a time when Michigan finds its stride historically; Beilein has always emphasized the importance of winning February. Last year, the Wolverines went from mediocre to one of the nation’s hottest teams over the course of the month.
Beilein believes embarking on a similar run is contingent on more player autonomy.
“We know at this time last year, we were a player-led team,” Beilein said. “I’m trying to embrace that down the stretch to really be successful these last few weeks.”
That’s why Michigan’s visit to Wisconsin (4-9, 11-15) on Sunday is so critical. Coming off a loss, it could be the start of a turning point in the season. A defeat, meanwhile, would further raise concerns about the Wolverines.
Despite the lopsided record, the Badgers ended a four-game losing streak Thursday in impressive fashion, beating Illinois by double-digits in Champaign. Center Ethan Happ, as he has in nearly every game this season, led Wisconsin with 27 points on 12-for-20 shooting.
Happ is the lone returning starter from last year’s Sweet Sixteen team, which graduated star forward Nigel Hayes as well as guards Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter. Those absences have been prevalent all season for the Badgers, which have just four wins in the calendar year.
Still, Happ averages nearly 18 points, nine rebounds and five assists per game.
“I’ve never seen anybody like him in my life,” Beilein said. “There’s not a guy anywhere that has that package. He’s got as many assists as Zavier Simpson — he has incredible vision. And with his back to the basket, he’s got eyes in the back of his head and can see everything that’s coming.
“There was so much around him last year, and now he’s the guy. … When everyone started double-teaming him last year, I think that bothered him a little bit. It’s not bothering him right now.”
Happ will undoubtedly be a matchup problem for the Wolverines’ frontcourt, which could be without freshman forward Isaiah Livers on Sunday.
Livers suffered an ankle injury coming down from a layup Tuesday against Northwestern. He attempted to start the second half but ultimately decided not to return.
“He was able to do some things the last few days,” Beilein said. “He’s day-to-day we’ll see how he feels tomorrow.”
If Livers can’t go, his starting spot will likely be filled by fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson, who started Michigan’s first 17 games before Livers took over at the ‘4’.
One way or another, Sunday is a near must-win against a potentially-tricky matchup for the Wolverines.
“Hopefully, we continue to evolve as a team in the way we play offense and defense down the stretch,” Beilein said. “Wisconsin … they don’t beat themselves. Very few have gone to Illinois and won. They’re trending upwards.”