IOWA CITY — So, Michigan lost because it’s tough to win on the road in the Big Ten. Or it lost because Iowa’s actually better than we thought. Or it lost because Michigan didn’t have the right energy for this game. Yada yada yada.
These may be the convenient answers for why the Wolverines suffered their highest-margin loss of the season to a team that was blown out by Progresso … check that … Campbell on its home court earlier this season. But they don’t explain the loss in any clear terms beyond Mysticism, Daoism or Tebowism.
The real explanation for a loss like this is a little less fun to mock.
The Wolverines have two star players. If neither impacts the outcome of the game, Michigan will likely lose, unless it’s playing Atlanta A&T.
Sophomore forward Tim Hardaway Jr. and freshman point guard Trey Burke are the two stars on the team. Sure, Zack Novak is a sensational role player, leader and ambassador, and once in a while, Evan Smotrycz reminds us how to spell his name. But neither of them dictate whether or not Michigan will win a game.
Michigan is a 10th-place team in the conference without Hardaway and Burke, so it only makes sense that it would play like such on Saturday with Trim Hurke contributing nothing.
Hardaway shot 2-for-13 from the field and missed all eight of his 3-point attempts. He was able to get to the foul line, but only when he thought better of taking contested 3-pointers early in the shot clock. And with just two rebounds, two assists and two turnovers, it was clear that Hardaway was better off staying in Ann Arbor for the weekend.
Burke is a different story.
You, box score dweeb, may be saying, “Neal, you turd. How can Trey Burke have played badly when he scored 19 points and hit most of his shots? Nice argument, ya GDI.”
Well, box score dweeb, I didn’t say Burke played badly. I said he had no impact on the game. He committed his second foul just seven minutes into the game and Michigan coach John Beilein benched him the rest of the half. Between then and halftime, Iowa increased its lead from two points to 10 points and the Wolverines were already against the ropes.
As for the decision to bench Burke? A point guard being whistled for two fouls is hardly a big deal, plus Burke plays the easiest position to exercise self-restraint and avoid fouling. So, Burke was overzealously removed and kept on the bench from most of the first-half action, and Michigan suffered for it.
Aside from two 3-pointers early on when the score was close, Burke was absent in the half.
In the second half, Burke couldn’t find his way to the basket until six minutes were remaining. By that point, there was no doubt that the Hawkeyes were cruising to a double-digit win. Burke went on to pour in 13 points in the waning minutes of the game, but they were all meaningless.
If you’re keeping track, from 13:16 left in the first half to 5:44 left in the second, Burke made no impact and Iowa had stretched its lead from two points to 15 points. Defend that, box score dweeb.
The Wolverines are a quality team. Their three previous losses were all to teams currently ranked in the top 16. In a 12-point loss at Virginia in late November, Hardaway scored just five points. And in the loss to Indiana two weeks ago, Burke went 4-for-15 and missed each of his three free throws. Both played well against Duke, but the Blue Devils are an elite opponent that are always going to be tough for Michigan to take down.
What I’m saying is that Michigan enjoys the luxury of having two star players, but they have to play like star players for the Wolverines to benefit.
If neither makes an impact, then we should expect the Wolverines to lose. If one plays well, we should expect Michigan to be competitive. And if both play well, we can expect the Wolverines to be competitive with the top teams in the country.
Last Wednesday, Northwestern almost took down Michigan at Crisler Center. The Wolverines made a second-half comeback and needed overtime to stave off the Wildcats. With Burke struggling throughout regulation, Michigan needed Hardaway to be effective.
“It’s no secret, (Hardaway is) our leading scorer,” Beilein said. “We don’t beat Northwestern if he doesn’t go on a run and make four, five in a row in the first half.”
Michigan has the stars to compete at the top of college basketball, but not the depth. When that happens, the stars control the fate of program. No pressure, Tim and Trey.
— Rothschild believes that if Devon Miles played basketball instead of snare drum, Atlanta A&T could have been competitive in Division-II college basketball. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @nrothschild3.