It has been easy to trace the deterioration in John Beilein’s outlook over the past three weeks.
He said the Michigan basketball team’s loss to Marquette on Nov. 27 was a wakeup call. He seemed to feel the last-second defeat to Alabama as unfortunate luck. But after the Wolverines were thrashed by Boston College’s flex-motion offense last week, Beilein and his team seemed discouraged and confused why they had not showed signs of improvement.
Now with Wednesday’s 68-52 loss at Utah, the Wolverines’ coaching staff has to grapple with a question that seems preposterous to ask just eight games into the season:
Is this a talented (but flawed) team in a slump, or just a bad team altogether?
The Wolverines have repeatedly said they must approach this season with the same “hunter’s mentality” they adopted after upset victories against UCLA and Duke last season thrust them onto the national scene. But even with two NBA-caliber players in junior Manny Harris and senior DeShawn Sims, it’s become brutally obvious that Michigan still has no consistent third weapon on offense.
The struggles of sophomore Stu Douglass (whose shooting has dipped from 37 percent last year to 24 percent this season) is well-documented, while sophomore Zack Novak and redshirt sophomore Laval Lucas-Perry have yet to show significant improvement from last winter. Meanwhile, freshmen guards Darius Morris and Matt Vogrich have attempted just a combined seven shots per game as they gradually adjust to Division I basketball.
Although the schedule has been tough – with the Old Spice Classic in Orlando on Thanksgiving and the trip to Utah this week – Michigan still shouldn’t have done so poorly. None of the Wolverines’ four losses have come against ranked competition, and Michigan still must travel to top-ranked Kansas and face No. 14 Connecticut in the next six weeks.
What’s most discouraging is how handily the Wolverines seem to have been beaten this fall.
Opponents are shooting a whopping 52.4 percent inside the arc against Michigan, thanks to consistent guard penetration and bigger frontcourts that can easily grab offensive rebounds and score garbage buckets. The Wolverines are also dead last in the Big Ten in rebounding margin, at -5.1. Northwestern is next highest with -1.7.
Although Beilein will likely keep his four-guard lineup – especially after Sims and fifth-year senior center Zach Gibson combined for just 4-of-14 shooting and six rebounds Wednesday – he appears to be hoping the perimeter shooting deficiencies even out over the next month before conference play begins.
“Our guards are just so young,” Beilein said Wednesday. “We just got to continue to get more experience and keep teaching them.
“What do you do? We just got to continue to play people and see who needs to improve the most. Right now, the guard play is not real good, and we just keep working at it. It’s not the biggest evil right now. There’s a lot of issues right now we need to get better at.”
Michigan has an elite dribble-drive slasher in Harris, one of the more skilled post players in the conference in Sims, and players who all have well-earned reputations as sharpshooters. Still, that has resulted in an offense that is just eighth in the Big Ten in scoring (70.6 points per game) and last in field goal percentage (41.3) and three-point shooting percentage (29.3).
Beilein is right to encourage his perimeter shooters to fire their way out of their slump. But until that happens, defenses will have no issue clogging the paint to try to take away Sims and discourage dribble penetration. The Wolverines also aren’t doing a very good job off the ball — either the team has no one who can set hard picks to free up the guards off curls for open looks, or the backcourt players aren’t moving with enough discipline. Either way, with the Wolverines cold from the perimeter, they are not difficult to defend.
This is a group that, at its current level of play, seems destined for the National Invitational Tournament right now. Considering the team narrowly made last season’s NCAA Tournament with 12 regular-season losses, four defeats before the winter break gives the team virtually no margin for error in a conference that features four top-20 teams.
And with Sunday’s game against Detroit the lone tune-up before Kansas, Beilein may not have to wait very long to see if this slump turns into something much more disappointing.