Game after game, the same thing. No matter who the Michigan men’s basketball team plays, it’s the same thing.
I’m not talking about turnovers, or missed shots, or its inability to get key defensive stops, all of which led to perhaps the most depressing loss of the season yesterday against Northwestern.
I’m talking about what happens after the games. Want to know what happens? The media members go into the locker room and ask players the tough questions that need to be addressed even though it’s obvious that if the players knew the answers, they wouldn’t be losing so many games.
After that, we go into the Crisler production studio, where Michigan coach John Beilein steps up to the podium and, far too often this season, attempts to explain why his team played the way they did. In yesterday’s case, he was trying to tell us why the Wolverines gave up a 17-point lead at home to a Northwestern team playing without its best player, senior Kevin Koble.
And after every game, no matter the opponent, one of the first things we hear from Beilein is how good the opposing team is.
It’s one of the things I like about Beilein. He’s a good guy, and he is very willing to give credit where credit is due.
But here’s the thing—the vast majority (I might venture to say all) of Michigan’s losses this year can’t be blamed on how great the other team was. They happened because of this team’s tendency to shoot itself in the foot.
Come on a ride with me. Let me take you back to Orlando, during the Old Spice Classic, when Michigan’s season was still young and full of promise. Remember the first game, against Creighton, when junior Manny Harris had to carry the Wolverines on his back to barely eke out a win against the Jays?
“I truthfully believe we just beat a very good team,” Beilein said after the game. “They’ve got a lot of talent, and their fans are going to enjoy watching them play, because they’re a good team.”
What’s Creighton’s record now?
They had me fooled, too. In Beilein’s defense, they did look like a good team against Michigan. But that was because the Wolverines made them look like a good team, not because they actually were.
Every Michigan loss besides Kansas was to an inferior opponent. Take your pick—Marquette? The Golden Eagles are 1-3 in the Big East, 10-6 overall. Boston College? 1-1 in the ACC, 10-6 overall. After each of these losses, Beilein made sure to let us know just how good these teams were and how good they were supposed to be.
And against Northwestern yesterday, it was the same story. Michigan was at home. It came into the game having won two Big Ten games in a row. It even led by 17 at one point. The Wolverines should have won this game, and they lost it not because Northwestern was that much better, but because they gave it away.
“They’re a good team,” Beilein said yesterday. “They were nationally ranked last week.”
While there is some truth to that assessment, it still doesn’t explain how a Wildcat team without its best player, coming off a 21-point loss at home to Michigan State, snatched away a game that looked like it was 100 percent Michigan’s until the end of the first half.
The Wolverines are not losing to great teams. They are beating themselves. And while there are clearly internal problems within the team that need to be addressed, want to know the real problem? Pretty soon, Michigan is going to start playing teams that actually are great.
These first five Big Ten games on the Wolverines’ schedule (at Indiana, home against Ohio State, at Penn State, home against Northwestern, home against Indiana) were supposed to be relatively easy, giving them time to prepare for the gauntlet that is the next two weeks.
After they take on Indiana at Crisler on Thursday, the Wolverines have a brutal four-game stretch, starting with Connecticut at home on Jan. 17, then Jan 20 at Wisconsin, Jan. 23 at Purdue, and at home against Michigan State on Jan. 26.
Certainly not for the faint of heart. Michigan has officially missed its chance to build up its Big Ten resumé by giving away two of its early conference opportunities. Now, it faces what is unquestionably its toughest stretch of the season with a less-than-stellar record.
After losing so many early nonconference games, the Wolverines’ only chance at an NCAA tournament berth is to tear through the Big Ten, beat Connecticut for their only relevant nonconference win, and make a run in the Big Ten Tournament. But unless they can pinpoint what it is that causes them to beat themselves, that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.
“We’re better than this,” Beilein said yesterday.
The Wolverines are better than the team they played, better than they themselves are playing, and they’re better than their record.
And when they fix whatever internal problems are ailing them, they might just have time to prove it.