The signature win that John Beilein’s young Michigan team so badly needed was right there for the taking. The Wolverines led by eight points with seven minutes to play and just had to play strong defense to ice the game down the stretch.
A Caris LeVert three that would have stretched the lead to 11 points rimmed out and the wheels began to fall off. The Michigan defense, which had been pushed to the brink against Arizona’s interior length, finally collapsed. Arizona scored on its final 11 possessions of the game to turn a 58-50 Michigan lead into a 72-70 Wildcat victory. Arizona big men Brandon Ashley and Aaron Gordon dominated in the final quarter of the game and the Wolverines simply let the game slip away.
The game left Michigan, 6-4, with more questions than answers. Players were adamant to point out that a game like this wouldn’t have been close two weeks ago, insistent that they were improving, but the inability to make defensive stops down the stretch is just one of many problems facing the Wolverines through 10 games. Highly touted freshman point guard Derrick Walton was rendered ineffective and All-American big man Mitch McGary finished with just 8 points and four rebounds. The Wolverines got great performances from Glenn Robinson III (20 points on nine shots) and Caris LeVert (15 points) but it wasn’t enough.
I attributed Michigan’s first two losses to its offense – the Wolverines scored just .94 points per possession at Iowa State and .86 points per possession against Charlotte – but this the loss fell squarely on Michigan’s defense.
Michigan’s offense was effective in both halves, although the recipe for success changed. In the first half, the Wolverines were able to push the pace and get some transition buckets – both threes and dunks. That opened things up and Glenn Robinson III got going in the halfcourt with some open shots and also some great individual efforts. Arizona adjusted its defense in the second, moving Aaron Gordon to defend Robinson, and took away a lot of the action that was successful for Michigan in the first. But the Wolverines adjusted to a high ball screen and dribble drive approach that resulted in Caris LeVert and Nik Stauskas combining for 19 points and 16 of Michigan’s 21 field goal attempts in the second 20 minutes. The Wolverines had 8 assists on 14 makes in the first compared to just 1 assist on 10 made field goals in the second but were fairly consistent with halftime splits of 1.19 PPP and 1.12 PPP.
The Wolverines scored 1.16 points per possession for the game against a defense that had surrendered over a point per possession just once this season, 1.02 to Cal Poly in the season opener. That’s a very good offensive game, well beyond what should be required to win. Michigan shot 52% on twos and 47% on threes for a 58% effective field goal percentage and even got to the free throw line more often than Arizona. The Wolverines struggled with turnovers early in the game due to some helter-skelter transition play but settled down in the second half. Michigan had only six offensive rebounds on 26 misses but actually outscored Arizona 9-8 in second chance points.
Defensively, the second half was nothing short of a train wreck. Michigan’s defense held up in the first half because the Wolverines were able to force Arizona into a number of misses around the rim, especially on second chances. The Wildcats were just 7-of-21 in the paint in the first half and scored just two second chance points despite grabbing nine offensive rebounds. Arizona was 11-of-17 in the paint in the second half and the results were staggering. The Wildcats scored a blistering 1.49 points per trip in the second half compared to just .90 in the first half.
The Wolverines had no answer for Aaron Gordon or Brandon Ashley down the stretch. Both players were a combined 10-of-14 from the floor in the second half after going 5-of-13 from the floor in the first. The duo dominated around the basket as they were able to take Michigan’s big men off the dribble or overpower the Wolverines on the offensive glass.
There’s no sugar coating it: this loss hurts. Good teams win at home, especially when they are winning in the final 10 minutes of play. Michigan is now just 6-4 on the season and still has to play Stanford at the Barclays Center next Friday and Holy Cross at Crisler before Big Ten play. The Wolverines non-conference season has been a disappointing and they let a win that would have righted the ship slip away.
- Glenn Robinson III: Robinson’s first half was nearly flawless. He scored on a classic Beilein cut to the opposite block, finished at the rim several times on difficult drives, knocked down a three in rhythm and knocked down a three off the bounce to close the first half. He finished with 20 points on 8-of-9 shooting with four rebounds and two turnovers. This was his best game of the season and something to build on against a very strong Arizona front line.
- Caris LeVert: LeVert had some questionable defensive breakdowns early but finished with 15 points on 6-of-15 (2-5 3pt) shooting and was a difference maker in the second half. Early in the season, many wondered aloud whether his wide array of hesitation and crossover moves would work against better competition. The answer appears to be yes. LeVert still has a long way to go but he’s Michigan’s best slasher and he hit some ridiculous shots against a great Arizona interior defense.
- Mitch McGary: McGary was just a wee bit out of control at times and never got into a rhythm. He attempted to throw a 40-foot alley-oop and airballed a 10 footer early but drew a charge to make up for his early mistakes. The four rebounds (3 offensive) are troubling in 23 minutes. Michigan players said their strategy was to have the bigs box out and the guards clean up the misses – that approach didn’t really work and McGary needs to grab more than one defensive rebound.
- Nik Stauskas: Stauskas had 15 points on 4-of-11 shooting with six rebounds, two assists, a block and a turnover. He was aggressive in the second half with the drive but his last shot with 25 seconds left was a bit troubling. Beilein said the strategy was to go for a “quick” or call timeout and that Stauskas diverted slightly from that approach but got a “pretty good look”. I think Michigan needs a better shot in that situation.
- Spike Albrecht: Albrecht had a couple assists for dunks and layups in the first half with dimes to Horford and McGary. He hit some huge triples but he got a little carried away in the first half with some uncharacteristic turnovers. Still, Michigan’s offense was significantly better with Albrecht on the floor. He’s a liability defensively but Michigan didn’t really have a better option with Walton struggling. There’s also no question that Albrecht loves the big moments.
- Derrick Walton: Walton was overwhelmed against Arizona’s backcourt and that’s a troubling trend. Spike Albrecht played great but he’s not the answer for 30 minutes per night. Michigan needs Walton to play well for its long term success. Walton was 0-of-3 (0-1 3pt) from the floor and missed two tough, but makeable, shots at the rim. He finished with 1 point, 1 assist and 1 turnover in 14 minutes.
- Jon Horford: Horford played a great game. He made an impact around the basket with his length, blocking four shots and adding a steal, and had a big dunk over Aaron Gordon. He does a better job of contesting shots than McGary but his offensive potential still seems a bit limited. Michigan gave up 43 points with McGary on the floor (1.87 points per minute) compared to 27 points (1.59 points per minute) with Horford on the floor but the Wolverines scored 42 points with McGary on the floor compared to just 28 with Morgan on the floor.
- Zak Irvin: Irvin was reduced to defensive replacement and only played five minutes. His one shot was a rushed three on the secondary break and it was always going to be hard for Michigan to play him at the four against Arizona’s lineup while Beilein couldn’t justify taking LeVert (38 min), Robinson (37 min) or Stauskas (38 min) off the floor for long.
- Jordan Morgan: Morgan played three minutes and picked up a foul but not a rebound. Again, with Robinson and Horford playing well it was tough to find minutes for Morgan.