WEST LAFAYETTE — Pop!
That’s the sound of the Michigan basketball team’s NCAA Tournament bubble bursting. Yesterday’s 84-55 loss to a Purdue team that was winless in the Big Ten has all but officially shut the door on any chance for the Wolverines to be dancing in March — at least in the tournament that matters anyway.
There are so many ways to describe the magnitude of the loss. The 29-point deficit was the second-largest of the season, second only to the 31-point defeat at the hands of then-No. 4 Georgia Tech. Michigan was outrebounded on the defensive end by 10 (25-15), the largest margin of the season.
Sophomore Dion Harris — Michigan’s leading scorer and go-to guy with Daniel Horton suspended — failed to score in double figures for the first time since Dec. 29 and shot 3-for-14.
But the one thing that is most worrisome about this team is the current lack of a direction for the program. The Wolverines are riding the longest losing streak of the season and have fallen below .500 in conference action.
After the game, Michigan coach Tommy Amaker was asked if there was a letdown by his players after Thursday’s loss to Michigan State.
“You can search for a lot of reasons, but I don’t have an answer for that,” Amaker said. “As a coach, sometimes you find yourself in that situation when you scratch your head and wonder.”
“I don’t have an answer for it,” Amaker said.
Those are not the kind of statements people want to hear from the leader of a team that is struggling to overcome a whirlwind of problems this year. Amaker needs to figure out how to right this sinking ship before things start to spiral out of control.
I’m not upset that Michigan lost this game. I’m frustrated in the way it lost.
Purdue came out wanting this win more than Michigan. The Boilermakers also looked well prepared and knew exactly what Michigan was going to bring to the table.
On the other hand, Michigan often looked flat and uninspired. The Wolverines often looked confused and couldn’t slow down any of the Purdue players.
For a team that had a size advantage, Michigan’s starting power forward and center — Graham Brown and Courtney Sims — grabbed just four combined defensive rebounds; 5-foot-11 guard Dani Wohl had four himself. This looked like a team that just wasn’t ready to play yesterday.
Or was it? Talking to forward Brent Petway after the game, he felt Michigan was ready to face the Boilermakers.
“We definitely were ready to try to bounce back (yesterday) and get a win,” Petway said. “I don’t think it was anything to do with preparation from the coaches. We came in here feeling real good, and we couldn’t turn the practice into the game.”
This can mean one of two things: either Petway is lying, or, worse, the team isn’t responding to Amaker’s coaching. Both suggest that not only are the players and coaches not on the right page, they’re not even in the same chapter.
I have great respect for what Amaker has brought to Michigan over his four-year tenure at the helm. He has helped restore a program that was disgraced and has brought class and dignity to this team. He brought the team back to national prominence last season by winning the National Invitation Tournament.
But now it appears that the program has begun to slide backwards by not living up to expectations this year and, at times, not looking like Amaker’s players are giving 100 percent at all times. This has nothing to do with making the NCAA Tournament this season — I’ll grant him a pass because of the injuries this season. But to have his team come out flat in a winnable road game is unacceptable.
With nine games left on its regular season schedule, Michigan and the coaching staff can prove what it wants to do with this season: remain competitive or throw in the towel. With six of those games at home, Michigan will likely pull out some wins.
In this critical stretch of the schedule, it’s time for Amaker to show that his team has the heart and determination to play competitively in all remaining games this season. If not, Amaker’s credibility in Ann Arbor might be drawing to a close.
Brian Schick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.