Michigan finally joins Big Ten’s wild season

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Indiana 63, Michigan 52 - 15

Before Michigan’s 63-52 loss to Indiana at Assembly Hall on Sunday, the Wolverines’ conference season could be accurately summed up in this creative analogy:

There was Michigan, along with its cross-state rival Michigan State, floating safely atop the Big Ten rankings as the rest of the conference lost its collective mind. Ohio State and Wisconsin, two teams ranked in the top five in early January, both lost five of six conference games. Penn State beat the Buckeyes on the road; Nebraska became suddenly unbeatable at home, knocking off Ohio State, Indiana and Minnesota; even lowly Northwestern won four of five conference games, including two straight road wins over Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Through it all, Michigan kept winning. The Wolverines beat three straight top-10 teams and even avoided a “trap” game against a mediocre Purdue team at home.

And then, Michigan traveled to Bloomington and joined the madness.

Coming into the game, Indiana was 3-5 in conference play. Michigan was 8-0. Yet somehow, the Hoosiers found a way to beat the Wolverines in the latest chapter of a truly unpredictable choose-your-own-adventure type of Big Ten season. Michigan coach John Beilein mused about the up-for-grabs nature of the conference season thus far.

“This is really unique that we have all those teams with five losses. The records may be one thing — just look at the scores of the games. Number one and number 12 are, like, points apart. I don’t care what the situation is. They’re points apart,” Beilein said. “So now, what’s the middle going to be like if for one and 12, it’s a possession or two? That’s the way it’s going to be all year long. Maybe we’ll have a whole bunch of teams finish 9-9. It’d be a hell of a year. Have the NCAA try to pick that one.”

Michigan, sharing an 8-1 conference record with Michigan State, still remains above the fray to an extent. The closest team is Iowa with three losses, and then after that, as Beilein alluded to, there are seven five-loss teams. That being said, it felt as though Michigan, which had been remarkably consistent in conference play, caught a touch of the Big Ten’s unpredictability bug on Sunday afternoon.

The usually high-powered Wolverine offense was rendered completely ineffective against Indiana, managing a mere 0.95 points per possession. Michigan’s usual go-to offensive weapon, Nik Stauskas, scored only six points on one made field goal. The normally eternally confident Canadian looked as though he was shaken by some early misses and frustrated all night by Yogi Ferrell’s ball-denial defense.

That matchup — Ferrell on Stauskas — was part of a broader defensive scheme from Indiana that Beilein said he hadn’t seen at all during his years as Michigan’s coach. The Hoosiers put their quickest player — Ferrell — on Stauskas. They also had Will Sheehey, a traditional wing, guarding Jordan Morgan while Noah Vonleh, a five, was assigned to Glenn Robinson III. This meant that when Jordan Morgan screened for or gave a dribble handoff to Stauskas, Indiana could switch without worrying about hedging or a significant mismatch. Michigan took advantage a few times passing to Morgan with a guard on him in the post, but it wasn’t nearly enough. This unorthodox scheme, combined with essentially no-catch defense on Stauskas, stymied the Wolverine offense.

“We were trying to get some mismatches through switches, but I thought we could do a better job there,” Beilein said. “Obviously we were trying to get Nik the ball … or Nik’s over there let Yogi guard him and we’ll play 4-on-4. The plan didn’t work.”

It was, overall, a bizarre experience for Michigan in Bloomington. Along with going up against a defensive game plan they hadn’t seen before, the Wolverines saw many shots that have been falling all Big Ten season go in and out.

“I think it was a little frustrating for some guys,” Jordan Morgan said after the game. “A lot of those were shots that we make regularly every day in practice and in most of our games.”

Those shots included free throws. Michigan makes almost 75 percent of its attempts from the charity stripe and has been great at closing out games at the free throw line throughout conference play. On Sunday, the Wolverines made only 50 percent of their second-half freebies.

Up was down and down was up for Michigan in a game that served as a microcosm of what has been a wild and crazy Big Ten season to this point. But really, this game wasn’t as strange as it looked to fans who’ve been watching Michigan play in the Big Ten season. Games like these, where absolutely nothing goes right, happen in every season, to every team. In that way, they’re common. The fact that Michigan has been able to avoid one for so long is perhaps the strangest thing about this season.

In the end, it was a Big Ten road loss. And there’s nothing strange about that. If Michigan can avoid too many of them, it can keep its place hovering at the top of the conference, watching the teams in the middle of the standings fight their unpredictable battles.

“We hadn’t lost in seven weeks. I think it’s really good for us,” Beilein said. “I didn’t think we were going to go undefeated. In the long run, I think we just have to grow from it and get better. … I had no expectations of an 18-0 season, believe me. Now we just have to try and get better.”

  • beileinbeliever

    I’m not sure why we didn’t take advantage of the significant height differential on offense. I believe at point Jordan Morgan was being guarded down low by a guard for Indiana. That should be an easy read and clear out to expose the mismatch. Why not have Stauskas post-up Yogi?

    • Indiana_Matt

      Depending on the personnel, a smaller, quick defender can really disrupt a post up player with their low center of gravity and speed. I am not sure how much success we would have had with isolating Morgan and throwing it in to him. But maybe. With Stauskas I think there could have been more success but wouldn’t Vonleh (freakish athlete, long arms) have been shading over to help?

      • rlcBlue

        There are definitely ways to attack the strategy that IU used – having the 6’6″ wing post up the 5’11” point guard being an obvious one – but the key point is that none of those counters are things we practice. Ever.

        With the youngest team in the conference, there’s barely been enough time to practice the things we DO run in games; certainly there hasn’t been any time to practice the stuff that we don’t. How many post touches does Stauskas have in his career? I’m guessing it’s a number between 0 and 3. How many post entry passes have Walton and LeVert thrown in college? We often run one post up coming out of halftime, but I’d be shocked if we average more than three per game.

        This is the same reason that people crying out for us to run 2-3 zone/triangle offense/diamond full court press/&c. are just being fatuous; basketball players don’t spring armor clad from the cloven heads of their AAU coaches with complete mastery of every Phog Allen phantasy. If they’re smart and motivated, they may learn a basket of skills by the time they’re seniors…

        As Beilein said in the presser, nobody had tried to defend UM this way before. Crean did a great coaching job. He recognized his team’s strengths and found a way to use them to neutralize our strengths. I’m sure that all the other B1G teams with burger boys at PG and PF will use the same strategy…

        • Indiana_Matt

          “…basketball players don’t spring armor clad from the cloven heads of their AAU coaches…”

          I think this is the greatest thing I have ever read in the comments on this blog.

  • Michpwr

    How does Doug McDermitt of Creighton get so many more touches and open opportunities that Stauskus? I think Beilein needs to modify the offense to get Stauskus more into the flow.

    • guestavo

      McDermott can post up and is a PF.

      I’m also sure Beilein, one of the greatest offensive coaches in America, will find counters for what Indiana decided to do yesterday.

  • Champswest

    When Nik is denied the ball, we not only lose our best scorer, we also lose our best guy at setting up other scorers (especially on the pick and roll).

    Our other players all have had big games, but they never seem to have them when Nik is being checked. We need to find ways to get Nik the ball or to get the other guys good scoring options.

    • Dr_ZC

      When as a coach you see the matchups you make the adjustments according to what you want done. This is by no means a criticism of the coaching staff, but if the concern was that Nik does not get enough touches, you need to take him out of the wing where he is waiting, to the top of the key, even bringing the ball down from the point position.

  • johnnyumfan

    Indiana Matt brings up a good point about posting up Nik on a smaller guard like Yogi. Yes, Vonleh would probably shade over for help but if he did wouldn’t Nik have the opportunity to pass to open teammates on the perimeter if he is double teamed? With UM’s 3-point shooters and spacing, double teaming any Wolverine might not be a wise idea.