DURHAM, N.C. – It would seem on paper the Michigan men’s basketball team finally caught a scheduling break.
They traveled to the unfriendly confines of Cameron Indoor Stadium on a week’s rest, but the Wolverines, who play seven freshmen or sophomores, went up against a Duke team relying primarily on its own seven underclassmen.
Unfortunately, what’s on paper can’t always transfer to the court.
In its 95-67 loss to the Blue Devils Saturday, Michigan not only learned how far this team has to go this season, but exactly how far this program needs to climb in the long run to one day measure up to the likes of Duke.
“We do have some upperclassmen who know the system,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “For (Michigan), everybody is a freshman, really. It’s new. And they’ll keep getting better and better. At this point in the season, it’s not instinctive, where our guys have a greater chance of doing that because our guys know what we want.”
Make no mistake, though. This wasn’t like the Georgetown blowout earlier in the season, where it became clear early on the young Wolverines were in over their heads.
The Blue Devils allowed Michigan to hang around in the game’s opening minutes. Duke missed its first seven shots of the contest and the Wolverines even held a 10-8 advantage with 14:34 remaining in the first half.
Then the Blue Devils showed exactly why they are poised to be one of college basketball’s juggernauts come March. Duke went on runs of 9-0 and 14-0 to give itself an 18-point cushion heading into halftime.
The Wolverines never recovered and, in the process, lost for the sixth time in seven games.
“It was the transition,” redshirt junior C.J. Lee said. “They were getting out and getting buckets, and you can’t do that, especially on someone’s home floor, because that’s going to get the crowd involved.”
Many of Duke’s fast-break points came courtesy of its work on the other end of the floor. The Blue Devils’ pressure man-to-man defense made things hard on Wolverine ballhandlers, who had trouble even getting the team into its offense at times.
Michigan committed 15 turnovers to just 11 assists, a stat that has irked the team all season long.
“Our skill level and things like that just break down at different times against a great defensive team, and their defense just took us out of what we want to do,” Michigan coach John Beilein said.
At his press conference earlier in the week, Beilein was concerned with the balance of the Duke offensive attack. Entering Saturday’s contest, the Blue Devils had six players averaging nine or more points per game.
But the man behind Duke’s runs wasn’t among those six. Freshman Nolan Smith, a high school teammate of Michigan sophomore Anthony Wright at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, had 11 first-half points, including a stretch where he scored nine points in just over two minutes.
Smith and fellow freshman Taylor King scored 17 and 18 points, respectively, off the bench to spark the Blue Devils after their stagnant beginning.
The Wolverines didn’t help matters by shooting 25 percent from the field in the first half, which included misses on several wide-open looks.
Michigan showed some signs of life in its third loss against a ranked opponent this season. In the second half, it scored 44 points.
Leading the way for the Wolverines were sophomores DeShawn Sims and Zach Gibson with 12 and 11 points, respectively. Gibson came off the bench for the first time this year. Sophomore Ekpe Udoh, who finished with a game-high 10 rebounds, started in his place.
But there can only be so many positives in a 28-point loss.
Even with Michigan’s improved play after halftime, Duke still put up 55 points in the second stanza and eight Blue Devils finished the game with at least seven points.
“Even though we’ve got sophomores and juniors out there . they’ve all been role players,” Beilein said. “And I don’t think one of those guys at Duke has been a role player in their life. . We’re still learning that we have to do some other things to help the team. And only experience will help them go from that role player to really helping us win.”