Watching Michigan basketball is like watching a movie where you know how the plot is going to end. You've seen it before, but maybe something will change or an character will have an unexpected turn. In the end, you just leave disappointed, needing the bathroom and with a dry mouth as a cause of too much popcorn.
The Michigan 2014-15 season has offered plenty of entertainment, and Thursday night was no different. Michigan seemed to come out of the gate hot, taking a 22-20-lead into the half. If the first half was a great performance, the first 5 minutes were even better. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Aubrey Dawkins both hit mid-range jumpers, Max Bielfeldt had a nifty spin move in the corner for a layup, and Spike made some acrobatic, leaping, falling out of bounds shot to extend the Wolverine lead.
Everything seemed to be dandy, but the job wasn't done yet. The Wolverines were faced with an Illinois team that just returned two suspended players, Aaron Cosby and Rayvonte Rice. While neither had the biggest impact on the game, both were vital in being the emotional leaders down the stretch when Illinois needed to stage a comeback. Michigan led 50-43 with 3 minutes to go in regulation, and didn't score for 8 minutes of game time, and wouldn't have scored at all if it wasn't for a cheap foul by Malcolm Hill to send MAAR to the free throw line.
When all was said and done, Illinois went on a 21-0 run in 8 minutes to storm back and defeat the Wolverines 64-52. This marks the fourth time in five games where Michigan was completely in the game against very solid teams (Wisconsin, Michigan State, Indiana) and couldn't pull out the victory. Michigan now sits at 13-12, and a disappointing 6-7 mark in the Big Ten.
Given the general mediocrity of the conference, it is so frustrating that Michigan was unable to at least win one or two of these games without Caris LeVert or Derrick Walton. The first 37 minutes were a combination of decent offense and stout defense, especially the 1-3-1 zone that gave Illinois fits, but Michigan simply needs a closer and doesn't have one.
Illinois native Max Bielfeldt had arguably his most complete game of the season, finishing with 12 points and 7 rebounds in 29 excellent minutes. Bielfeldt had a nifty move in the corner, finished around the basket with both hands, and was great on the boards. The one issue for Michigan is that a 6'7 center should not be taking the majority of the minutes, even with Bielfeldt's excellent contributions off the bench.
If Max was the man up front, then Spike Albrecht deserves a huge amount of praise for his work in the backcourt. Albrecht played nearly the entire game, finishing with 13 points on 6-11 shooting to go along with 5 assists. The biggest issue with Spike is that he is not at full health, and being able to give Michigan 40+ minutes is a huge ask for the junior. He was clearly frustrated at the end of the game, yelling into his jersey and looking somber on the bench. He has become the leader and catalyst for this team, and Michigan was unable to give him the support he needed Thursday night.
Another bright spot for Michigan was wing Aubrey Dawkins. I was excited about Dawkins before he came on campus, and in spurts he has been great for John Beilein and Michigan. He played 34 minutes and finished with 9 points and 4 rebounds, but I love his length and athleticism on the defensive end. It gives Michigan another added boost when it plays zone defense, and Dawkins should be a key piece going forward for Michigan.
As good as Dawkins was, Kameron Chatman was ghastly for Michigan. After playing 11 minutes in the first half on 0-6 shooting and 2 free throws, Beilein did not play the freshman for any of the second half regulation. He seems to be slow and resembles a chicken with its head cut off on both the offensive and defensive end. Michigan should highly encourage Chatman to stay over the summer and put in the work that helped guys like Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Caris LeVert elevate their games, because right now Chatman's season has been a complete and utter disaster.
Michigan has 5 conference games remaining, including two next week against rivals Michigan State and Ohio State. If Michigan can somehow win both of these games, they might have a lifeline for the rest of their season. The NCAA tournament is pretty much all but down to the Big Ten tournament, but seeding becomes a huge issue and if Michigan wants to have a shot, they need to compete for the highest possible seed.
The hope is that they can find the strength to compete, but it seems like most of the players are dejected. For fans, the most excruciating part is knowing how close Michigan could be to 8-5 or even 9-4 in conference. Instead, they sit below .500 a year after finishing 12 games above that mark. John Beilein must go back to the drawing board and figure out how to beat the Spartans. If not, it could get ugly in Ann Arbor on Tuesday night.