Michigan basketball, temporarily ranked #4 in the country, will take on Penn State on Sunday at noon. The game will be aired on the Big Ten Network.
Usually in this segment we will preview the match-ups, discuss what it will take for Michigan to win the game, etc. Then Rob and I will make our predictions. Rob is 22-3 predicting the outcome of Michigan games this year. I am 21-4. We both like Michigan to pound on the Nittany Lions, a team that has yet to win a Big Ten game. Rob has them winning 85-63 and I have them winning 92-69.
But today, we are going to do things a little differently. The reason why is because the loss on Tuesday night in East Lansing shook the foundation ever so slightly in Ann Arbor. Michigan paraded out past and present royalty to witness what was hoped to be a signature moment in Michigan’s rebuilding project. Instead, the Wolverines shot blanks all night, ran around reckless on defense, and got blitzkrieg’d to the tune of a 23-point smack-down.
But the observant fan will look at the overall body of work Michigan has put forth this year and hold their head high. John Beilein’s players would be wise to do the same. Michigan is 21-4 but has suffered 4 Big Ten losses. Those losses have all come on the road in arguably the 4 toughest venues the conference has to offer. They lost by just 3 in Columbus, 8 in Bloomington, and by 3 in overtime at the Kohl Center.
Why panic after one disappointing blowout? Duke lost by 27 points earlier in the year to Miami. They didn’t panic. They are ranked #2 in the country. A big reason why is because Duke acts like they’ve been there before. And this is what Beilein and the rest of the coaching staff have to get the Wolverines to play like, even if this is their first time around the block.
When Michigan got down big early in the MSU game, they finally realized how much they miss Zack Novak and Stu Douglass. Yes, Trey Burke was doing his best to keep them close, but he was seemingly playing 1 on 5 for large parts of the game.
Veterans Jordan Morgan and Tim Hardaway, Jr. offered little support to their star point guard. This has to change. On Wednesday afternoon, Hardaway took to Twitter and posted this: “Would like to apologize to our fans, alum, UofM, and all of wolverine nation for the performance displayed last night. Will not happen again.”
Fortunately for Michigan, 4 of their last 6 games are at home. Only roadies to Penn State and Purdue remain before the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago. Burke and his crew will get retaliation shots at both IU and Michigan State in a building where they have lost just once in the last 2 years. Lose those games, and worry will certainly set in. Win them and Michigan will head into mid-March with guns blazing.
So what has to change? For one, Jordan Morgan needs to get healthy. He is Beilein’s most technically sound post defender. The Wolverines have been chewed up in the paint since he rolled his ankle. An athletic big man like Morgan, when playing with confidence, takes all kinds of heat off of freshman Mitch McGary. Since the Purdue game Morgan has missed 2 games altogether and only logged 17 minutes in the other 4. He is more of a key than most fans realize.
Secondly, the rapid decline in production from Glenn Robinson III has been alarming. He was so vital to Michigan’s attack just a few weeks ago that Beilein could barely get him off the floor. Prior to the Indiana game, Robinson was shooting 60% from the field for the season, while averaging 5.8 boards. In the most vital 4-game stretch on the schedule, something resembling a March Madness gauntlet, Robinson has shot just 7-24 (29%) and corralled only 13 rebounds. Twice he raised up for jumpers against Michigan State and twice you knew it had no chance even before it left his hand.
When Michigan was at their deadliest earlier in the year it was because Robinson was creating havoc on the offensive glass, finishing at the rim, and providing the occasional dagger three-pointer at just the right time. If Michigan’s coaches can nail one thing between now and the end of the season, it would be to get GR3’s head right. He is a tremendous player with gobs of upside – upside that Michigan doesn’t have the luxury of waiting on.
Another huge problem has been that Michigan struggled defensively during this most recent stretch. They have had a very difficult time coming out in hostile environments and guarding the opposition. Often times, tough defense is the best way to claw out of a disadvantage on the road and the Wolverines haven’t been able to call upon that. This must change if Michigan is to become a Final 4 team.
Finally, we all knew this was going to be a difficult stretch of scheduling for Michigan. They played 4 games in 11 days with 3 of those coming against teams ranked in the top 10, the other in the Kohl Center torture chamber.
Fatigue is probably a factor and has been exacerbated by Morgan’s lack of playing time. Michigan gets a full 4 days off before the Penn State game and another 6 days off after that before hosting Illinois. With down time comes preparation time. When the bus mercifully got back to the Crisler Center in the wee hours of the morning on Wednesday, Michigan knew that they’d be spending 2 full weeks in Ann Arbor without a road trip. That has to provide some comfort.
Look for Michigan to take advantage of their down time, come back together as a group, figure out how to defend as a team, and to keep all 8 members of the regular rotation involved mentally.
A 23-point loss to your arch rival is going to send fissures throughout the fan base. That much is inevitable. The fact that Michigan hasn’t played their best basketball in big road games is obvious. With none of those left on the schedule I have a hunch things will quickly return to normal for this group. Their character is too great for anything else to transpire.
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