On a night when the Michigan basketball program celebrated its proud past, it couldn’t hide its disheartening present.
The Wolverines dropped another Big Ten contest at Crisler Arena, this time to Minnesota and first-year coach Tubby Smith, 77-65.
“At times in a game, you see improvement,” senior Ron Coleman said. “And there’s times when you see guys taking steps back – maybe taking plays off or not wanting to play together. That’s something that we have to fix.”
With Michigan’s best big man ever, Cazzie Russell, being honored along with the house that he built, it was the Gophers’ big men who dominated the paint.
Minnesota outscored the Wolverines 44-20 in the paint, sometimes scoring with two or three Michigan players in the area and no one challenging the shooter.
Michigan’s lack of size and experience hampered its efforts across the board.
Minnesota’s biggest player, 6-foot-9 center Spencer Tollackson, tips the scales at 260 pounds. The Wolverines’ biggest man, sophomore Ekpe Udoh, is an inch taller but 30 pounds lighter.
Tollackson and fellow senior Dan Coleman both have more than two years of starting experience. Michigan’s three big men – Udoh, sophomore DeShawn Sims and redshirt sophomore Zack Gibson – have less than two years of combined experience.
Coleman and Tollackson scored 11 of Minnesota’s first 15 points to help the Gophers build a nine-point lead in the first eight minutes. Coleman finished with a team-high 17 points and Tollackson ended with 14.
But the Gophers’ offense was fueled by their pressure defense. Rather than sit back and contain, like the Wolverines’ last few opponents, Minnesota’s defenders engaged the ballhandler, forcing poor shots and untimely turnovers.
The Wolverines two best offensive players, Sims and freshman Manny Harris, committed a combined 10 turnovers.
“We put the ball on the floor and just said, ‘I’m just going to drive it,’ ” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “I thought that set the tone more – their defense (rather than) their offense set the tone.”
Like it has much of the Big Ten season, Michigan put together a late-game run when it was too late for a real comeback.
Trailing by 21 points with a little more than four minutes remaining in the game, the Wolverines went on a 13-2 surge to pull within ten and awakened the sparsely filled Crisler Arena. But they mustered just four points in the rest of the contest.
The loss was a sour note on an otherwise happy evening for the program. The Wolverines celebrated Crisler Arena’s 40th anniversary by honoring the first team to ever play in the arena and the man who “built” it.
But by the end of the night, the building belonged to Minnesota and its coach. A large and loud contingent of Gophers fans filled Crisler with chants of “Tubby, Tubby” and the first-year coach pointed to the crowd and smiled. It was the coach’s 400th win.
Russell, who left the arena several minutes earlier, exited with much less fanfare and a tired expression on his face.