Every year, most top teams have a head-scratching loss. They'll lose at home to an unranked team, score 50 points on the road in a tough environment, or shoot under 30% on an off-shooting night. Following Saturday's choke artist performance against the lowly New Jersey Institute of Technology, Michigan had no choice but to rebound and pick up their level of play significantly.
On Tuesday night, Michigan played in-state rival Eastern Michigan from nearby Ypsilanti. The Swoop (yes, that's their real nickname) came into the game 7-1 with their best win coming against Oakland and their only loss to a decent Dayton team on the road. Michigan knew that the opponent would present a unique challenge and needed to come out of the gate fast given the poor performance against NJIT.
EMU's Raven Lee began the game with a thunderous dunk after a Caris LeVert turnover and Michigan gave up three offensive rebounds on the first three possessions of the game. Following the very slow start, Michigan went on a 10-0 run to jump out to an eight -point lead. But the first half was ugly, filled with missed shots and turnovers. Michigan finished the first half with 5 made field goals compared to 10 made free throws, including a 1-10 showing from the 3-point line. Despite lackluster play all around, the Wolverines still led 21-19 at the half.
The second half wasn't much prettier, despite the Wolverines making 9 field goals compared to 5, but they didn't earn any trips to the free throw line. Eastern Michigan had the lead, 36-31, with 9 minutes to play, but a Ricky Doyle slam-dunk, a LeVert jumper, and a tough Max Bielfeldt layup gave Michigan the 37-36 lead. Though the Wolverines gained the momentum, Eastern kept it close until the end. And then the most frustrating stretch of play for Michigan occurred in the last 3 minutes of the game.
Here are the final 5 Michigan possessions in order: Zak Irvin badly misses a 3-pointer, Spike Albrecht misses a deep 3-pointer, Caris LeVert misses a 3-pointer, an Albrecht turnover and a wild possession leads to a Michigan timeout with 2 seconds left, and finally it ends in a missed 40-footer by Zak Irvin. 5 possessions, no attacks to the basket. 4 missed 3's and a turnover. No points. Eastern Michigan 45, Michigan 42.
There are so many areas to nitpick and discuss that a single column wouldn't be able to do it justice. For those that didn't watch the game, the box score provides plenty of talking points. Michigan made 14 field goals, shooting 33% from the field and 19% from 3. Eastern Michigan did play a 2-3 zone, but after seeing the Wolverines destroy the Syracuse zone it is mind-boggling that Michigan only shot 4-21 on 3-pointers against the less athletic Swoop. Michigan also turned the ball over 13 times, an uncharacteristically high number for John Beilein teams that typically only average 8 or 9 a game.
If you were a Michigan fan watching the game, there was a lot of yelling and screaming at the TV and frustration brewing at the lack of any offensive cohesion and numerous mental lapses on the defensive end. The most telling statistic is the number of offensive rebounds. Eastern Michigan finished with 9, while the Wolverines finished with just 2. Offensive rebounds are based on heart, will, strength, determination and a little bit of luck. Losing that battle by 7 is unacceptable for a Wolverine team that was desperate to show any bit of heart.
The final gripe regarding Michigan's performance is the offensive incompetency. Michigan has a pre-season second team All-American (LeVert) and two players capable of scoring 20 points in any game (Walton and Irvin). Combine that with easy looks for bigs and shots from the wing tandem of Kameron Chatman and Aubrey Dawkins and Michigan should be scoring at least 60 points every single game against any team in America. Scoring 42 points against Eastern Michigan is absolutely unacceptable for a team trying to win the Big Ten. Whether John Beilein is planning on retooling the offense, giving different players new roles or reassigning minutes is yet to be seen, but the panic button is pretty close to being hit after two enormous losses.
While Tuesday night was supposed to be a tune-up for the hardest opponent to play Michigan will play against in non-conference play and one of the hardest environments to play in all season, it turned into a disgrace in front of a half-filled Crisler Center. John Beilein has 3 days of practice to get his players ready for Arizona, the best team on the West Coast.
If you were looking to build a great college team without a roster filled with NBA stars, Arizona would be the closest thing. It starts with their floor general; T.J. McConnell is a perfect point guard for Coach Sean Miller. McConnell is a tough guard with a decent jump shot, but is more of a pass-first point guard who loves to set up his teammates and plays tough defense. At shooting guard, Gabe York will likely get the start against Michigan. York is catch-and-shoot player who is a little bit of a liability on the defensive end.
In the frontcourt, Arizona has arguably the most talented rotation in the country except for maybe Wisconsin or Kentucky. The most talented of the group is 6'7 Stanley Johnson, an explosive wing who can play anywhere from shooting guard to power forward depending on whether Arizona plays smaller or bigger. He is joined by Brandon Ashley, a rangy forward with a great shooting touch. Ashley broke his foot last year when the Wildcats were 21-0 and has fully recovered based on the tremendous junior year campaign he has waged up to this point. The final starter is Kaleb Tarczewski, a legit 7-footer with good touch around the basket who brings an added level of toughness.
Off the bench, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is basically the de-facto sixth starter for Arizona. He came off the bench last season and Coach Miller likes him in this role. He brings tremendous energy, is an elite athlete, and continues to improve his jump shot. Beyond these six, no other player averages more than 15 minutes or 4 points off the bench. Miller will go deeper than six, so expect Elliott Pitts and Parker Jackson-Cartwright to play limited minutes in the backcourt and Dusan Ristic will likely be the only big man off the bench.
At this juncture, you'd be hard-pressed to find two teams trending more in the opposite direction. Arizona has been great all season, with two top-15 wins over San Diego State and Gonzaga. Michigan's best win is Syracuse or Oregon and neither team looks worthy of mention in the same breath at Arizona. For Michigan to win, a few issues will have to be resolved in Tucson.
First and foremost, Michigan's offensive needs a "kick in the butt." If they can only score 42 points against Eastern Michigan, should the over/under on points scored at Arizona be set at 30 or 35? The big key will be whether Zak Irvin can get out of his nasty slump. He is shooting 3-16 from 3 over his last two games, an abysmal number for a player who generally hovers around 40%. Irvin needs to have the confidence of his teammates to shoot the ball without hesitation, something the Wolverines are going to need throughout the season.
Second, Michigan is going to need their big men to play their most complete game of the season. John Beilein has clearly not found his go-to guy after Ricky Doyle appeared to emerge from the pack following two strong performances. In their last game no big man played more than 15 minutes, but none of the three played less than 11 minutes either. Arizona's frontline presents a unique challenge that Michigan has not faced and Arizona could maul Michigan on the boards if Ricky Doyle, Mark Donnal and Max Bielfeldt don't step up.
Lastly, Michigan needs to play with heart. It's the most cliché term in sports and life, but it's true now more than ever. The Wolverines have one of the youngest rosters in the country starting two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior. Even if Michigan loses a game they are expected to lose, they need to prove to themselves and each other that they are able to battle and compete with one of the best teams in the country in a hostile environment. Look at whether players run over to one another after a hard foul, give high-fives after a great block or defensive play, or whether their body language is poor. This could be telling not just for Saturday's game but for the direction of the rest of the season.
Overall, Michigan is going to Arizona at the worst time, but maybe getting amped up for a game in which they have nothing to lose could be healthy for this Wolverine team. After two extremely bad losses, the only people the players can turn to for support is each other. Can Coach Beilein deliver a great speech and will Michigan to the unlikeliest of victories since NJIT beat this team?
In the end, I believe Arizona has too much talent and too much strength inside. Still, Michigan needs to put together a semi-competent performance to win back the trust of Michigan basketball fans regardless of the final score. I think Brandon Ashley is a nightmare matchup for anyone on the Wolverines' roster and winning in Tucson will be borderline impossible. When it's all said and done, I have the Arizona beating Michigan 68-56. For Michigan fans, the result isn't what matters. It's about heart. If Michigan can't at least give that to its fans on Saturday, there's not much left to root for.