Michigan coaches and players can talk about defense and toughness until they are a blue in the face, but right now this team can’t play it.
Maryland walked out of the Crisler Center with a win on Saturday afternoon and it was because the Wolverines just couldn’t stop them. The Terps made 10-of-15 three-point attempts on the afternoon and scored an easy 1.25 points per possession.
Michigan fought back from a 9-point halftime deficit, but Maryland had an answer every time the lead was trimmed to a single possession. The Wolverines were able to get back into the game because they held Maryland to just 1 point in the first 9 possessions of the second half.
Then the Terps responded by scoring on 17 of the final 22 possessions of the game — that’s 39 points in 22 possessions, or 1.77 points per possession in the final 14:30 of the game.
Yes, Maryland was hot from three-point range. Jared Nickens had a 31.5 eFG% entering the game and hit four triples on four attempts. Melo Trimble and Anthony Cowan hit some deep step back threes late in the clock. Whatever, sooner or later you have to figure out ways to get stops.
Teams are now making 41.4% of their threes against Michigan and 54.7% (!) in league games. There are only 9 three-point defenses in the country that have been worse than that this season.
Maryland made 10 threes on 15 attempts. Maryland rebounded over a third of its misses. Maryland scored on 17 of its final 22 possessions, 12 of its last 15, 7 of its last 8. You get the picture. The Wolverines couldn’t get a stop and that’s why they lost this game.
Michigan’s offense isn’t the problem. Through three games its on pace to be the second or third best offense in the conference despite playing two of the top four defenses in the league. Scoring 1.13 points per possession should be good enough to win Big Ten games. The Terps have only given up that many points per possession once this season.
But it all comes back to defense and making winning plays down the stretch. Maryland had the answers every time and the Wolverines came up just short. Silly turnovers, poor shot selection, missing critical late free throws. You can point to Michigan’s executional mistakes offensively, and there were plenty of them, but if you don’t get any stops then you are forcing yourself to be nearly perfect offensively and this team isn’t that.
What’s the answer? It has to come from inside somehow, but if it hasn’t happened yet… It’s not like the Wolverines can make sweeping personnel changes. Who in the starting lineup, or the rotation, would be described as an above-average defender?
The only team that I can remember that turned an awful defense into a decent one was the 2010-11 Michigan team. That group allowed 1.22 points per trip over its first 7 conference games and then turned the season around in East Lansing and made the tournament. Is that repeatable? I’m not sure with this group.
John Beilein didn’t have a great game either. When he rolled out the the 1-3-1 zone after a Maryland timeout, it felt like a layup was inevitable. It was. I get the idea of going zone out of a timeout and understand that Maryland was terrible against Nebraska’s 1-3-1 zone, but when was the last time that Michigan got a stop out of the 1-3-1?
I also don’t understand using a starter to intentionally foul in the final minute of the first half — especially by a coach who has historically been so foul averse. That was a big reason why Walton found himself in foul trouble early in the second half.
Next up, another road game as Michigan heads to Champaign. If you want to argue that any Big Ten team other than Wisconsin is significantly better than any other then go ahead, but at this point I have no idea. Right now KenPom projects 11 of 14 teams to finish between 7-11 and 11-7. There are winnable games on the schedule, but sooner or later this team must defend.
- Moritz Wagner: Wagner seemed to be involved in every significant play — good or bad. He had some brilliant moments offensively in the second half — kudos to him for attacking more in the second after settling for threes in the first — and seemed to keep Michigan in it with his scoring, but he’s going to need to develop more counters. He always goes right and has a scoutable set of moves. He also hasn’t shown the consistent ability to pass out of them. He was far from the only one, but his defense was a major issue on the day. He was lost in the pick-and-roll game from the opening tip defensively and never really recovered.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: Abdur-Rahkman had some strong drives to the hoop, but he still is clearly lacking confidence. He missed a wide open breakaway layup and his jumpshot is still missing in action. He’s now shooting 29% from three-point range and that’s a bit of a black hole in the corner of the U-M offense.
- DJ Wilson: Wilson couldn’t guard Justin Jackson one-on-one (Jackson finished with 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting), but he made up for some of those problems with some offense. He knokced down all three of his long range attempts and also had a run out dunk.
- Xavier Simpson: Simpson had a few bright moments (something we’ve seen more often lately) as he handed out a pair of assists in 9 minutes. I like his defense and think that at this point he’s going to have to start playing a few more minutes as Walton continues to struggle.
- Mark Donnal: Donnal gave Michigan some solid defense in the first half after Wagner looked completely lost in ball screen coverage early. Donnal finished with 5 points and six boards in 15 minutes in one of his better performances in a while.
- Zak Irvin: Irvin hit some shots, but he attempted as many threes of the dribble as twos and had 5 turnovers to 3 assists. I thought he was doing the right things — looking for the roll man, trying to get to the basket, but he just couldn’t execute consistently enough.
- Derrick Walton: Two of Maryland’s biggest threes in the second half were stepback jumpers over Walton in shot clock situations. Those are the shots that we’d be screaming if Walton or Irvin took, but Maryland made them (and just about every other three) and part of that has to fall on Walton doing a better job contesting. Offensively he made two shots, a left-handed three to open the game and a late layup in the final minute, and handed out only one assist.
- Duncan Robinson: I’d have to go back and watch the film, but by my tracking it was Robinson who got lost or screened on at least three of Nickens’ triples.