EAST LANSING — It was the best of
teams. It was the worst of teams.

Amita Madan

It was an offensive juggernaut. It was mediocre at best.

It was victorious and a conference title contender. It was
outmatched and outworked.

And, in light of Saturday’s disappointing effort at
Michigan State, the most critical thing for the Michigan basketball
team to definitively figure out now is what “it”
is.

If there is any one word that could be selected to describe the
Wolverines’ season so far, it has to be this:
Inconsistent.

Michigan beat a very good N.C. State team to move to 4-0. In its
next game, Michigan was demolished by Vanderbilt.

Then, the Wolverines were impressive in taking down UCLA. Three
days later, they dropped a one-point stunner to Boston
University.

And, finally, Michigan opened the Big Ten season with a thorough
trouncing of Northwestern. In the 10 days since then,
Michigan’s offense and, in some instances, its desire, has
seemingly disappeared, and the Wolverines have fallen to Indiana
and Michigan State.

So, at 1-2 in the conference, and with three out of four games
on the road in the next two weeks, the Michigan basketball team is
still searching for an identity.

Sometimes, the Wolverines have shown up as a cohesive offensive
unit. In those instances, they’ve been nearly impossible to
stop, as their speed makes them difficult to match up with.

But, other times, they’ve been sloppy, facing shots as
they did against Indiana and Michigan State. When that occurs, the
Wolverines make the other team look great, as they did with the
Spartans on Saturday.

“(The Spartans) played defense just like everybody else
has been playing,” Michigan point guard Daniel Horton said.
“They did a good job, but they weren’t trapping, they
weren’t pressing. We were just careless with the
basketball.”

Last year, the solutions for Michigan were more obvious.

Even though the Wolverines will tell you they were comfortable
with anyone shooting, Horton and now-departed forward LaVell
Blanchard were the go-to guys. There was no question which two
players Michigan was going to turn to in the clutch.

This year the answers haven’t come so easily.

“I don’t know,” said Michigan forward Lester
Abram about what went wrong on Saturday. “Daniel had a pretty
good game today, and everybody else didn’t really. I think
sometimes we’re trying too hard.”

On paper, there doesn’t appear to be much of a problem.
Horton, Abram, Bernard Robinson and Dion Harris are all averaging
more than 10 points a game.

In watching Michigan State’s offense, however, the problem
with Michigan’s attack became more apparent.

Almost every trip down the court, the Spartans got the ball in
the hands of either guard Chris Hill or forward Paul Davis. There
was no question that, in spite of Hill’s sub-par performance
(he was hampered by illness), the Spartans knew which two guys they
wanted with the ball.

For the Wolverines, though, every possession had a different
aim. Maybe it was Horton shooting a 3-pointer, or Robinson trying
to create on the wing, or center Courtney Sims looking to bang
inside.

Michigan’s variance of options can sometimes be a huge
advantage over the defense. But when the shots aren’t
falling, like they weren’t on Saturday, then it’s
imperative to know which guy you can find to pour in some
points.

So far, that No. 1 option has been different in every win
— which can definitely give opponents fits. The problem has
come from the fact that a go-to guy has been nonexistent in every
loss.

“(Hitting on all cylinders) comes with experience,”
Robinson said. “We’re a young team, and that experience
will take care of itself. We don’t run a specific offense
like (Michigan State). We run a more open offense so everyone gets
ample opportunities.”

Getting the entire team involved can be effective, but in a game
like Saturday’s, the Wolverines need someone to step up
individually.

The person most capable of doing that is Horton.

The Michigan coaching staff knows it. In the second half on
Saturday, Amaker played Horton and guard Dion Harris together,
allowing Horton to catch and shoot, or drive to the basket.

When this offense has been at its best, like in the victory over
UCLA, it started with Robinson and Horton, and everyone else fed
off of them. No matter who they play all year, there won’t be
anyone who matches up defensively with Robinson and Horton.

So while spreading the ball around will keep everyone involved,
it also has a tendency to take Robinson and Horton away from what
they do best.

At this point, the discovery of the Wolverines’ identity
lies in their ability to distinguish between sharing the ball, and
doing so while getting their best players the majority of the
touches.

Solving the problem would, no doubt, lead to the best of
times.

– Chris Burke can be reached at
“mailto:Chrisbur@umich.edu”>Chrisbur@umich.edu.

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