Centers ‘still thinking out there’ as Michigan struggles inside

Alejandro Zúñiga

Ricky Doyle’s emergence as a go-to center by the Michigan basketball team’s fourth game of the season was surprising, to say the least.

The last three games have been somewhat of a return to reality — not just for Doyle, but for all of the Wolverines’ big men. In losses to NJIT, Eastern Michigan and then No. 3 Arizona, their inability to establish or maintain an inside presence has proved to be an issue for Michigan.

In the preseason, assistant coach Bacari Alexander told the trio of Doyle, Mark Donnal and Max Bielfeldt that he hoped they’d combine for 15 points and 15 rebounds per game. At the time, Alexander recalled Doyle saying, “Coach, that seems like a low expectation.”

But over the last three contests, the group has averaged just 10 points and five boards.

The struggles against the Wildcats on Saturday were expected. After all, 7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski, 6-foot-8 forward Brandon Ashley and 6-foot-7 forward Stanley Johnson are tough matchups for most teams in the country. Still, allowing Arizona to outscore it 42-16 in the paint and rebound half of its misses in the second half was far from  what Michigan needed if it had any chance of pulling off an upset.

“I think we didn’t get enough easy baskets today,” said junior guard Caris LeVert. “I think they got a lot of easy baskets.”

As a team, Michigan has generally struggled to score at all at the basket. The Wolverines are shooting just 46.5% on two-point attempts, which would be their worst two-point shooting percentage since 2008. Michigan is shooting just 37% on mid-range jumpers and an even mode disappointing 57% at the rim, according to ShotAnalytics

If there were one play that symbolized the Wolverines’ rough afternoon, it occurred right at the beginning of the second half — after a first period in which Michigan had scored just four points in the paint. The pick-and-roll and a nice feed from LeVert finally got Doyle a clear path to the basket, but Johnson read the play and made a strong, clean block.

“Ricky and Mark are first- and second-year guys,” LeVert said. “Mark, it’s his first year playing, actually. J-Mo and Jon [Horford] were really fluid running the offense and things like that, and Mark and Ricky are still thinking out there.”

If it were just the Arizona game, there wouldn’t be such cause for concern. But against Eastern Michigan on Dec. 9, Doyle and Bielfeldt managed nine total points, while Donnal was held scoreless. The problem there is evident from the box score: The three centers had a combined four field goal attempts, suggesting the Wolverines were having difficulty getting the ball into the paint against the Eagles’ quick 2-3 zone.

But four rebounds against a team that missed 29 shots isn’t a great number, either.

“Who would think that we would get 17 offensive rebounds against Syracuse and two against Eastern Michigan?” said John Beilein after the Eastern Michigan game.

And against NJIT, the bigs went for 13 and five, still not quite the production Alexander had anticipated. Doyle isn’t yet a commanding back-to-the-basket threat, while Donnal’s midrange game hasn’t been enough of a weapon to establish himself inside, either.

But the Arizona game is troublesome on its own, too. While the Wolverines won’t face many frontcourts as talented as the Wildcats’, Beilein hoped the contest would serve as a barometer for Big Ten play.

The returns weren’t very positive, but they were another step in the development process.

“It’s motivation now,” Beilein said of what Doyle could learn from the blowout, “and it’s motivation all year for him to say, ‘This is what the big boys play like, and this is what you have to learn how to be able to do.’ ”

  • Fab 5 Legends

    this was obviously a cause for concern coming into this year especially with Horford leaving…Donnal & Beifedlt have slow reaction and unfortunate unathletic competing with the better bigs in the country…Doyle has energy and tenacity and will improve in the rebounding field for UM…our wings need to step up and help with the rebounding as well…when our pg is getting more rb then our bigs then you know theres a problem…hope we get our stuff together and beat SMU….Irvin and Walton need to step even though there sophomore…on this team they need to play like upperclassman for us to get some more Ws

    • Fab 5 Legends

      Levert is doing a great job statistical, hope he comes back next year…not sure what nba scouts are saying but he leads us with pts, rbs, stl, ass…keep it up

      • MAZS

        NBA scouts say he’s gone

  • Corperryale

    Donnal moves at half-speed like a zombie. He also seems reluctant to set real screens. Not sure what is up with him, but it’s not encouraging. At least with Doyle it’s clear he’s making an effort. Bielfeldt seems like a good guy but at 6’7″ is not a centre.

    • Mattski

      Trying to be polite here, but would YOU like being compared to a zombie? Do you REALLY think he moves like one? We’ve tended to be a little more high-minded than this here, and I’d like to think that will continue. At the very least, if you are going to harsh on players be creative! :)

      • Corperryale

        if you didn’t like the zombie analogy, please take your pick of the following alternatives: a majestic tortoise, a three-toed sloth, blackstrap molasses, the lava on Mauna Kea, a wooly mammoth in the La Brea tarpits, continental plates,

        • Mattski

          He is kind of. . . deliberate. But Beilein has turned so many players into productive additions, I am holding out hope on all fronts.

      • itsjustaherb

        I’d rather have 6′ 4″ Zack Novak playing center than having Donnal out there. Donnal doesn’t bring enough energy or toughness on the court.

    • Fab 5 Legends

      I agree with your analogy, i was expecting more from him as a redshirt freshmen, unfortunately i think his still couple years away to be a reasonable threat for Michigan….at the moment hes a liability on both offense and defense…Doyle is by far our best option at this moment in the season…

      • Fab 5 Legends

        Donnal needs a consistent jumpshot and be more physical if his going to get those Pittsnogle comparisons (West Virgina Beliein) and even Pittsnogle was only a threat during his upperclassman years…I hope Donnal becomes the same come his junior-senior year

        • itsjustaherb

          Pittsnogle was averaging 11 points and 5 rebounds a game his Freshman year. It’s safe to say that Donnal is no where near him so far in his career.

  • Wayman Britt

    I bet Donnal tears it up in shooting drills in practice. He has a nice shot, it’s just his release is slow. In a game he doesn’t have enough time to get his shot off. Not sure how a player can develop a quicker release, but hopefully he can improve this aspect.

  • Chris De Sana

    Along the same lines as Wayman, I would like to be a fly on the wall of a practice or two to see how these guys look playing against each other. I have a feeling he is right that Donnal knocks them down like crazy but against who? Max? Not a realistic comparison of those he will face in a game.

  • mikey_mac

    I thought Donnal would be able to hold off Doyle mostly based off practice/system experience, but he’s shown no command of any part of the PNR game, and is not physical enough to have a defensive presence. He’s getting backed down and shot over in the post almost at will.