Last season, Michigan was 6-4 through their first 10 games. Their best player, Mitch McGary, played his final game against Arizona, a 72-70 heartbreaking loss at Crisler. The difference, however, might be in the quality of losses. Michigan had two respectable losses at Iowa State and Duke last season that prepared them for the rigor of Big Ten play, and a head-scratching loss on a neutral floor against Charlotte. Michigan has two acceptable losses at Arizona and at a neutral site against Villanova this season, but two inexcusable back-to-back losses against NJIT and Eastern Michigan still loom. The reality is that Michigan started 6-1 and is now 6-4.
Michigan got run out of the gym Saturday afternoon against one of the top teams in the country. Arizona whooped Michigan, behind 17 points and 7 rebounds from Stanley Johnson, as the Cats mauled the Wolverines 80-53. Michigan was able to keep it close to start, as Arizona clung to an 11-9 lead after the first 5 minutes. But Kameron Chatman picked up his second foul with 14 minutes remaining in the half, prompting Beilein to sit him until the end. Irvin soon followed suit, and with 10 minutes remaining, Beilein was forced to play freshman Aubrey Dawkins for extended minutes.
Michigan was still hanging on for dear life, down only 20-14 despite two starters being forced to the bench. But hanging on is all they could do, as Arizona muscled their way inside along with highlight dunks to lead 36-25 at the half. It felt more like a 16 seed playing a 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and Michigan was hoping for Arizona to commit cheap fouls to send their better players to the bench. Ricky Doyle even banked in a free throw. It was that type of half.
As bad as the first half was, no one saw the onslaught of the second half coming. Arizona jumped out of the gate with the first 12 points, as Michigan was held scoreless for the initial five minutes. Arizona was in the bonus with over 12 minutes remaining, and seemed to gel on offense in flashes that weren't seen in the first half. When it was all over, the Wildcats outscored Michigan by 16 in the second half. If it wasn't for Michigan scoring 9 points after the final TV timeout in garbage minutes, they wouldn't have cracked 50. Again.
As predicted, they had no answer for Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski inside. The two big men combined for 25 points and 13 rebounds. On the wing, Gabe York had an open 3-point attempt on seemingly every possession, and Stanley Johnson proved that he's one of the best and most explosive players in the entire country. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson had a masterful defensive game on both Zak Irvin and Caris LeVert. Even Dusan Ristic had flashes in which he was able to dominate the Michigan bigs for stretches. Arizona flat out dominated Michigan, and they had no fight back to counter anything Arizona coach Sean Miller threw at them.
Michigan could have lost by 3 or by 30, but they moved to 6-4 on the season. In my previous column, I asked for Michigan to show a bit of heart in an environment where heart and a little bit of luck would have been the only way to escape Tucson without a loss. Instead, Michigan played 40 minutes of uninspired basketball. Zak Irvin finished with 14 points, but you can't point to any individual player as having a great game.
Caris LeVert was completely shut down, finishing with 8 points on 2-9 shooting. Derrick Walton finished 2-7. Kam Chatman finished 3-8. Michigan was bad, plain and simple. Mark Donnal and Ricky Doyle did finish with 13 points combined, but grabbed 4 rebounds in 33 minutes of play. There are so many fingers to point that you can't go through every single category.
There are a few questions that Michigan fans need answered before next Saturday's tilt against SMU, a team that many Wolverine fans had penciled in as a W. But this isn't the same team that beat Oregon and Syracuse a few weeks ago. First, Michigan needs to win a defensive-minded game. To beat a team with Arizona's caliber on their home floor, they needed to hold the Wildcats to around 65 points. Instead, an offensively deficient Arizona team at times seemed like the most prolific offense in the entire country. If Caris LeVert, Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton aren't having great offensive games, can Michigan win? That will be a question that John Beilein is hoping to answer in the next few weeks.
Second, Michigan needs some sort of lifeline from its big men. Beilein still continues to tinker with the rotation, and even played Max Bielfeldt alongside Donnal and Doyle respectively in stretches. Will he look to the two-big lineup more frequently given the struggles of Kam Chatman? Can Michigan find a big man who can play a semblance of defense against a decently talented big man? These questions are still looming, and hopefully Michigan will have them answered by the new year.
Lastly, Michigan needs to prove to its fans, coaching staff and pundits around the country that they can bounce back. The Arizona game was embarrassing, and the Michigan players will be the first to admit that. But this is now three consecutive games of terrible, pathetic basketball. Coach Beilein is hoping that the friendly confines of Crisler in conjunction with winter break for the players will help them break out of a nasty slump. If not, it could be a long season in Ann Arbor.