Before the Michigan men’s basketball team’s game against Ohio State last Saturday, junior forward DeShawn Sims hung a hand-written sign over his nameplate in the locker room.
It read, “I.M. Work.”
After hitting just 4-of-13 shots for 10 points in his team’s 65-58 loss to the Buckeyes, Sims tore the sign off the locker in frustration.
“I was supposed to work hard, but I ain’t do no work, so I have to take it down,” Sims said.
The loss was the second in the Wolverines’ current three-game losing streak.
During the skid, Michigan has been dominated by physical opponents. The Wolverines start a four-guard lineup, with 6-foot-5 freshman guard Zack Novak often playing the four position. Big Ten teams know Michigan lacks big men and have effectively pushed the ball into the paint.
“They’re bigger than I am, but I just have to find a way to get it done,” Novak said. “Hopefully on offense they got to guard me too and they have to come out and step up. I just have to do a better job.”
In their last three games, the Wolverines have been outscored in the paint by 9.3 points per game. Their lack of physical presence down low has also led to seven fewer free-throw attempts than their opponents per game in the stretch. Prior to that, Michigan averaged 4.1 more attempts per game than its opponents.
“What do you do? It’s just really tough,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “Hopefully down the road we’ll continue to recruit and get guys that are a little bigger there, but now it is what it is, and we have to find other ways — double teams, different things. A lot of stuff today, you just can’t stop.”
The Wolverines’ small lineup has put more pressure on Sims, who is often the tallest Michigan player on the court at 6-foot-8. In losses to Illinois and Ohio State, Sims combined to shoot 7-of-27 for 17 points. Illinois center Mike Tisdale and Ohio State center B.J. Mullins easily handled Michigan in the paint, combining to shoot 17-of-21 for 39 points.
Against Penn State on Tuesday, Sims found his offensive rhythm, hitting 10-of-14 shots for 21 points. But the Wolverines still failed to stop the Nittany Lions in the post, giving up 36 points in the paint.
“We have so many guys under 200 pounds,” Beilein said. “I mean, we get in there and we get nudged a little bit and it bothers us.”
Beilein hopes that, despite giving up size defensively, his small lineup will create mismatches on the other end of the floor. But opponents have adjusted their defense to keep the quick Wolverine guards out of the paint. Ohio State employed a 1-2-2 zone that prevented any of their big men from defending Michigan’s guards on the wings.
Defensively, opponents have exploited the Wolverines’ 1-3-1 zone, lofting passes into the paint to create mismatches as Michigan’s guards attempt to clamp down on the ball.
“We’re trying to do everything we can to make up this lack of size,” Beilein said. “We’re trying. We’re trying.”
But Michigan has also failed to knock down open shots. In the last three games, the Wolverines are shooting 35.6 percent, well below their average of 42.8 percent before the losing streak.
Tomorrow, Michigan faces Northwestern, the Big Ten’s hottest team. The Wildcats have upset both No. 21 Minnesota and No. 7 Michigan State in the last week. If the Wolverines are to end their losing streak, they will need to overcome their shortcomings in the paint.
Back in the locker room following the Ohio State game, former Michigan standout Glen Rice approached Sims. Rice gave Sims a hug and whispered, “Dominate, dominate.”
And with such a guard-oriented team, Sims is the Wolverines’ best hope to establish a dominant post game, to defensively clamp down on opposing big men and to break them out of the slump.