There were goals — promising ones. Best of all, they seemed well within reason.
The Michigan men’s basketball team was on an accelerated course back to Big Ten relevance. Looking to earn its second consecutive NCAA Tournament berth, the Wolverines appeared to have the program’s foundation in place, one their coach — John Beilein — described at length in the preseason.
After 23 games, Michigan (4-7 Big Ten, 11-12 overall) has gradually fallen behind that curve. And for the first time publicly, Beilein hinted that the Wolverines’ goals for the remainder of this season have now morphed into something more intangible.
“I had one of the recruits ask me one time — he was born in 1990 … if Michigan was ever good in basketball,” Beilein said during his weekly radio show Monday. “That just blew me away, for a guy who had watched all these great (Wolverine) teams. We will get it back, but it looks like we’re in a bit of a rebuilding phase already in year three.”
Contrast that realization with tonight’s opponent — Minnesota (5-5 Big Ten, 14-8), which has hit an extended rough patch of its own, having lost five of its last eight games.
But Minnesota, sitting at No. 62 in the RPI rankings, is still in firm control of its destiny in its hope for back-to-back NCAA Tournament invitations. And though they still have to play themselves off the bubble, there are plenty of signs pointing to a big night for the Golden Gophers.
Minnesota leads the Big Ten in overall scoring (75 points per game), largely because of guards Lawrence Westbrook and Blake Hoffarber, who are combining for 25 points on 51-percent shooting this season. Hoffarber has undergone one of the most dramatic improvements in the country, leading the nation with a 50-percent clip from behind the arc.
“He had a sophomore year just like (sophomores) Zack Novak and Stu Douglass are having,” Beilein said of Hoffarber, who shot just 34 percent last season after hitting 43 percent from downtown as a freshman. “Kids just go through these things.”
“(Minnesota) could make a run right now. We’re going to try to get in the way. … We’re going to be ready.”
With four days between games, the Michigan coaching staff will have had ample time to address several mismatches on paper. The Golden Gophers are allowing opponents to shoot a league-low 39.7-percent, while the Wolverines are next to last in shooting with a 41.8 percent rate.
Since Michigan’s 3-point offense is likely to remain at or near the bottom of the conference the rest of the way, Beilein figures his team’s best chance is to bring the ball closer to Minnesota’s giant frontcourt — with caution, of course.
Led by sophomores Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson III, the Golden Gophers are the leading shot-blockers in the Big Ten at 6.3 swats per game.
“Your shot could end up in the rafters when you’re trying to take it to the basket,” Beilein said. “Our mid-range game — we’ve got to pull up from 10-15 feet instead of taking it all the way to the basket sometimes.”
Outside of junior guard Manny Harris, however, no one on Michigan’s roster has shown they can consistently hit those mid-range jumpers. And with the Golden Gophers ready to throw a combination of man, zone and pressing defenses, the Wolverines will have to rely on execution more so than any innovative X’s and O’s.
With less than a month remaining in the season, and the same recurring problems still at the forefront, Michigan seems past the point of any breakthrough adjustments.
“We’re a very small team,” Beilein said. “So it’s very difficult to go do things inside. … (Big Ten teams) are going to make you shoot it from the outside, and they’re not going to let you drive into the lane.
“For whatever reason, we have not been able to shoot the ball well. And as a result, they keep packing it in. … It’s not as schematic as people would think. Sometimes it’s just personnel.”