Was rock bottom the 15-point loss to Northwestern in Evanston? Or was it the 62-44 loss at home to Wisconsin, a team to which the Michigan men’s basketball team lost by just six in Madison?
Either way, fans figured it had to get better. This team just wasn’t as bad as it played for those consecutive games.
And it did get better. A lot better, actually.
The Wolverines traveled to Minnesota and stole one from the Gophers, shooting a stellar 50 percent both from behind the arc and from the field while keeping the rebounding deficit at a manageable six.
After that they went to Iowa and gutted out a tough overtime win. Say what you want about how weak Iowa is this year, but the fact is it’s really, really tough to win on the road in the Big Ten — against anyone. And this game wasn’t about the opponent for the Wolverines. It was about proving they could get a gutsy win away from home when the bounces weren’t necessarily going its way.
Following that game, things were looking up for the first time since the victory over Connecticut on Jan. 15. Fans were even thinking about the tournament again.
“Well, if we run the table and win two or three games in the Big Ten Tournament, that gives us two signature road wins and about 19-20 wins. I mean, they’d have to let us in, right?”
Unfortunately, those thoughts didn’t have much time to linger. Like most of the season, the fans who got their hopes up saw them dashed pretty quickly.
Against Penn State at home on Saturday, the Wolverines regressed in almost every facet of the game.
“The imperfections that you try to cut down during the season,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “When a few of them happen again, it’s very frustrating.”
After shooting a combined 47 percent from the field in those two road wins and 51 percent from 3-point land, Michigan returned to its old ways this weekend, shooting 35 percent from the field and 21 percent from beyond the arc.
It’s tough to say a team’s shooting deteriorated because it’s not necessarily something teams can control. But still, it looked like the team was breaking out of its season-long shooting slump over the past two games. After Saturday, we can draw the conclusion that the “slump” is simply the way things are, and any night the percentage is above 40 percent from the field and 30 percent from long range is just an anomaly.
But it was easier to see the regression in other aspects of the game. Perhaps the most evident was Michigan’s defense.
Other than Darius Morris, who played lockdown defense on Penn State star Talor Battle, the defense went the way of the offense: streaky.
“When we haven’t shot well, we are a distracted team,” Beilein said. “Now you’re thinking about the missed shot and not getting the loose ball. You’re thinking about it on defense.”
This has been a problem the entire season. When Michigan shoots poorly, its defense suffers. And this is literally the exact opposite of the way a basketball team needs to operate. It’s easier said than done, but when a team misses shots, it needs to play even harder on defense to make up for it. It’s true you can’t control when shots fall, but you can always control defense. It’s what coaches tell you in the third grade, and it’s still true in college. Michigan seems to still be figuring it out.
After keeping the rebounding margin relatively close the past two games, on Saturday, the Wolverines were outrebounded by 14. While it’s true that Michigan was missing more shots than Penn State — which gave the Nittany Lions more opportunities for defensive rebounds — that’s still a pretty big number. Not many teams can win when they get outrebounded by that margin.
So where exactly is rock bottom? Is it losing at home to a team that had one Big Ten win this season before Saturday? I’m not sure.
Right now, rock bottom looks a lot like a bottomless pit.