At the beginning of this season, when Michigan coach Tommy Amaker began talk of laying a foundation for the rebuilding basketball program, no one could have envisioned that the project would require this many bricks.
Saturday, for the fourth straight game, the Wolverines were dismal shooting the ball, finishing at 36.5 percent from the field and 12-for-21 from the free-throw line en route to a 56-52 loss at Crisler Arena to Western Michigan (3-1).
The performance from the floor for Michigan (0-4) was actually an improvement over the Paradise Jam tournament, as the Wolverines raised their season shooting percentage to 35.5.
The Wolverines also turned the ball over 21 times, leaving the offense to scratch and claw its way to any points.
“I think you look at two stats: free-throw shooting and turnovers – that’s the difference in the game,” Amaker said. “To shoot that poorly from the free-throw line and turn the ball over 21 times, we’re not going to beat too many teams with those kind of numbers.”
Even with the offensive ineptitude, the Wolverines were in a position to pull out a come-from-behind victory over the Broncos.
Michigan trailed 52-45 with just over a minute remaining in the game, but pulled within two and had possession of the ball with nine seconds left.
Senior guard Gavin Groninger drove into the lane and kicked a pass out to forward LaVell Blanchard in the left corner.
Blanchard was open enough to get a potential game-winning 3-pointer off, but the shot rattled around in the cylinder and popped out, allowing Western Michigan guard Robby Collum to grab the ball and the victory.
“We actually did a good job running that last play, because we ran a play that we did last year that we haven’t really this year,” Groninger said. “I came off a double screen from the baseline.
“That’s the first look for me to get a shot from the corner. They did a good job switching out, so I knew LaVell would be on the other side so I tried to drag it across the floor and kick it to him.”
Western Michigan coach Robert McCullum was disappointed with his team’s last-second defense, but nonetheless relieved that Blanchard’s final shot fell out.
“(Michigan) got some middle penetration and whoever was guarding LaVell started watching the ball,” McCullum said. “I thought our player did a good job hustling back to try and contest the shot – in those situations you want to make someone else beats you other than LaVell Blanchard or Bernard Robinson Jr.”
Neither team was able to establish a comfortable lead in the game. Western Michigan led 25-24 at halftime, and thanks to six points each from center Anthony Kann and forward Mike Williams, the Broncos stretched the lead to 46-39 with 8:47 left.
“I think we need to improve (our interior defense),” Amaker said. “I think when you look at some breakdowns we had you we can see that a lot of they key areas came as a result of youth and inexperience with Graham Brown and Chris Hunter and the fouls.”
Michigan responded, pulling within 46-45, and accumulating four fouls on both Kann (who finished with 12 points) and Collum (17 points). But with a chance to take the lead, freshman Lester Abram was called for a charging foul with 4:33 to go in the second half, and the Wolverines never pulled any closer than two points the rest of the way.
“We talk a lot about deserving things and I felt (Western Michigan) certainly deserved the victory,” Amaker said. “We played with desperation to get back into it and give ourselves an opportunity to win it, but I think we all agree that they deserved to win the way they played the entire 40 minutes.”
That’s not to say that the Western Michigan offense looked like a juggernaut either – the Broncos had just as much trouble finding the basket as Michigan, shooting 35.7 percent from the floor and committing 16 turnovers.
“We didn’t do the things we wanted to well, but I thought that we kept our composure and that’s why we came out with a victory,” Collum said. “We didn’t shoot as well as we wanted to; credit Michigan, they played good defense.”
For the first time this season, the Wolverines outrebounded an opponent, grabbing 41 boards compared to the Broncos’ 36. Blanchard paced the charge with 12 rebounds (eight offensive) to go along with his team-high 14 points.
The Wolverines will have little time to make any major improvements, as Central Michigan comes to Ann Arbor on Tuesday, the last game before Michigan travels to Duke next Saturday. The 0-4 start for the Wolverines is only the second time in the history of the program that that mark has been reached – the 1933-34 Michigan team also began the year 0-4.
“We have to reevaluate a lot of things, whether that means personnel or what we’re doing on the floor,” Amaker said.
“We are at a point in the season where we just need to find a way to win.”