Twenty-nine games into one of the worst seasons in program history, one would think the Michigan men’s basketball team had a better grasp of itself by now.
Anybody who has watched the Wolverines over the course of the season knows the team relies entirely too much on freshman Manny Harris, doesn’t have enough playmakers or shooters and hasn’t played with enough intensity on the defensive end.
And yet, when asked to explain last Saturday’s 69-61 loss at Penn State, redshirt freshman Anthony Wright didn’t mention any of those things. Instead the Sterling, Va., native went with the same tired refrain of youth and inexperience.
“We are a young team,” Wright said. “We got stuck with a hard schedule to start off with, and we just never got to learn certain things.”
But how can Wright and his teammates say that when the Wolverines step on the floor for their final regular-season game of the year with No. 15 Purdue Sunday?
The Boilermakers’ top five scorers are all either freshmen or sophomores. The same goes for Michigan, so there will be plenty of youth and inexperience to go around.
And while Purdue (14-3 Big Ten, 23-7 overall) went through some growing pains early in the year – losing games against Missouri, Wofford and Iowa State – it has rebounded to put itself in position for a Big Ten regular-season title and an NCAA Tournament berth.
What makes Purdue more impressive is its lack of a true star player. No one on the team averages more than 12.2 points per game.
Even with a loss to Ohio State Tuesday night, the Boilermakers have won 16 of their last 19 games and have proven youth and inexperience don’t matter much if you play great defense and control the tempo of games.
The same cannot be said for Michigan (9-20, 5-12). The team has taken a step back since winning four of five games from Feb. 9-23. In the last week, the Wolverines have dropped games to lowly Northwestern and Penn State.
Part of the problem is the lack of contributions from anyone not named Manny Harris. Sophomore DeShawn Sims has struggled mightily, shooting an atrocious 10-for-49 in his last four outings, and the team’s defense has routinely allowed opponents to have record-setting nights. Against the Nittany Lions, Michigan gave up 12 3-pointers, including seven from freshman Talor Battle.
“It’s not because the defense is hard,” Harris said after scoring a career-high 29 points in the defeat. “It’s bad communication on our part.”
But Purdue coach Matt Painter doesn’t care much about that considering his Boilermakers are still fighting for higher seeds in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments. A win over Michigan, coupled with a Wisconsin loss to Northwestern on Saturday, would give Purdue a share of the Big Ten Title.
“I think (Michigan) is a dangerous team,” Painter said. “We’re going to prepare for them like it’s the Super Bowl or the World Series.”
The last time these two teams met, the Wolverines nearly upset the Boilermakers in West Lafayette, losing 65-58. In that contest, Michigan’s youth got the best of it and the team got off to an awful start in front of a raucous Mackey Arena crowd.
More than two months later, the Wolverines have a golden opportunity to finally show their growth and end a season to forget on a high note.