MINNEAPOLIS – As I watched the second half of Saturday’s Michigan basketball loss to Minnesota from the balcony of Williams Arena, I saw five, inexperienced freshmen try to battle a hostile crowd and lead Michigan to victory over a hot-shooting Gophers team.
Now, like me, you’re probably thinking why the Wolverines were relying on their youth to pull out a tough Big Ten road game. Where were the veteran players with the experience? Where was LaVell Blanchard?
The senior was on the bench in foul trouble. After starting off strong in the first few minutes of the game, Blanchard finished with just nine points on 2-of-13 shooting. He missed three free throws. He didn’t deliver in the closing moments of the game, when coach Tommy Amaker called a play to get him an open 3-point look.
Bernard Robinson said after the loss that even though the Wolverines lost twice this week, they still have the same level of confidence they had during the winning streak.
“You have to remember this is still the same team that won 13 straight,” Robinson said.
But there is one difference – Blanchard has pulled a disappearing act in Michigan’s last three games. He has not made the big buckets down the stretch that Michigan needs him to make – the buckets that he should be making – and it is hurting the Wolverines in crunch time.
Against Michigan State, Blanchard went 0-for-5 from the field, finishing with just two points from the foul line. Michigan was able to pull out the win thanks to contributions from other players, but Blanchard was not a scoring factor.
He had 18 against Illinois, but was nonexistent in the second half when Brian Cook exploded to lead Illinois’ comeback. Blanchard’s first half contributions were significant, but his teammates needed him to respond to Cook’s onslaught with some baskets of his own. They needed him to be poised and confident down the stretch, but he wasn’t a factor, and Michigan lost.
Saturday was the ultimate vanishing act, as the memory of his quick start quickly went away as he lost confidence in his shot and the Wolverines fell short.
Where was the clutch-shooting Blanchard that began dropping 3-pointers like raindrops against Wisconsin to spark Michigan’s comeback? Where was the Blanchard that took over against Minnesota on Jan. 22 by scoring 24 points in the second half (28 in the game) to get Michigan the victory? Where was the poised Blanchard that went 10-of-10 from the free throw line against Vanderbilt to lead his team to a win?
When Amaker speaks of his senior and how Blanchard is the key for Michigan this season, he is speaking of these qualities – he is speaking of these times when Blanchard showed leadership and determination in the face of adversity.
But those qualities haven’t been showing up lately, and Blanchard must find a way to regain the confidence he had so he can start playing like a senior again. His success is particularly important right now, as Michigan is heading into the meat of the Big Ten season with road games against Indiana, Purdue and Wisconsin on the horizon.
Showing up at home is not enough anymore. Experience always counts for something, and in Blanchard’s case, he must use what experience he has to deliver away from home. He needs to be the one leading this team into conference battles, and the one bringing them home with a win.
Right now, Michigan is in an excellent position to contend for the conference title. Still, without a title under his belt, Blanchard should be hungry. He needs to seize this opportunity, and put this team on his shoulders.
Blanchard’s success never meant more to Michigan in his four-year career than it does now. It’s time to deliver.
Naweed Sikora can be reached at email@example.com