During last Sunday’s film session, Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein told his team a fable while preparing for No. 9 Michigan State.
The story goes like this: A group of elephants stood in a jungle amid fewer lions. The lions didn’t think they stood a chance against the more numerous and mighty elephants, but the lions eventually came to see the situation differently.
They noticed the elephants never talked to each other, so when the elephants separated, the lions could attack and pick them off one-by-one.
Beilein hoped the tale would motivate some of his quieter players to speak up on the court. In last night’s 54-42 loss at Crisler Arena, the rivalry crowd was deafening at times, but a startling silence fell upon the Wolverines.
“Basically, we have to talk on defense and talk on offense when we’re open, or we’ll get eaten,” said fifth-year senior guard David Merritt, explaining Beilein’s tale.
The first part of the message got through pretty well. The Wolverines held the Spartans, who lead the Big Ten in offense, to a season-low 54 points. Michigan State also tied its season-low rebound total with 31.
But something else was missing.
Besides fifth-year senior guard C.J. Lee, the Wolverines are a quiet group on the floor. Lee consistently audibly encourages his team to get back on defense and calms players after they commit fouls.
Last night, while playing a career-high 37 minutes, Lee said a sore throat limited him vocally.
But the Wolverines need more than one major voice on the court. Who was there to fill in?
Beilein has said junior forward DeShawn Sims and sophomore forward Manny Harris have grown the most as team leaders this season.
Last night, Harris spoke up on defense, switching defenders in the man-to-man schemes and chasing for rebounds. Harris’s contributions were vital for Michigan to stay in the game.
But on the other end, Michigan State’s defense was a little too much.
Michigan was held to a season-low 15 points on 19 shots before halftime. Five times that half, the Wolverines were forced to take bad shots as the shot clock wound down.
And in a low-scoring rivalry game like this one, someone needed to step up.
Sims responded in the second half, calling for the ball inside and finishing with a game-high 18 points. Sims didn’t start the game, but still set the tempo after the break.
“Walking the walk before I can talk the talk,” Sims said, describing the biggest obstacle to opening up on the court. “Got to walk it. Got to be able to do everything I ask of someone else. If I tell someone not to miss a screen or talk on screens, I have to talk on screens they see every time.”
This team is hard to figure out. Sometimes, it’s hitting eight or nine 3-pointers a night, and other times, the ball doesn’t even come near the hoop. But more voices can help when things aren’t going well to spark the offense and defense.
With just six games left, and just two of those at home, Lee can’t carry the whole burden. Michigan needs its best players like Harris and Sims to say more on the floor.
“I always say you may have a very quiet persona, but you can not have that on the basketball court,” Beilein said at his weekly radio show on Feb. 9. “And until we all understand that and come out of our personality a little bit, it holds us back. It really does. It doesn’t mean they’re bad people, but it’s very important.”
Michigan is a young team and its players will find their voices with time. But until that happens, the Wolverines’ NCAA Tournament hopes are fading just as quickly as their voices.
— Lincoln can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.