In the aftermath of Michigan basketball’s 79-69 loss, that wasn’t nearly that close in reality, Mitch McGary called his team ‘soft’. And he’s right.
Covering Michigan basketball gives you an opportunity to get up close with the players, and rarely does a sound bite like this one come to light. John Beilein and his staff do a tremendous job of making sure the right players are available for interviews after the game and that they generally say the right things. It is a controlled environment and it makes sense.
However, a frustrated McGary was just calling it like he sees it after a nervous and inefficient team effort at Duke. One of Michigan’s strengths coming into the season was their supposed depth up front with McGary, Jon Horford, Jordan Morgan, and Max Bielfeldt. Throw in their long wing players in Glenn Robinson III, Caris LeVert, and Nik Stauskas, and rebounding was expected to be a strength.
Granted, Duke only beat Michigan out on the glass by one rebound but the toughness and intensity that was on display by the Blue Devils was vastly superior to the effort Michigan brought to an always rowdy arena. To win in Cameron Indoor Stadium as a visiting team it is imperative to be able to rise above the environment and play your brand of basketball.
Instead, Duke completely nullified Stauskas, literally taking him out of relevance. And speaking of relevant, did Robinson even play? In 34 minutes, the projected lottery pick managed to get up nine shots, scored eight points and grabbed three boards. For large chunks of the game he was nearly a ghost, just taking up static space on the wing. Robinson was supposed to be this team’s headliner. Instead, he has taken a back seat to the likes of Stauskas and LeVert who seem to crave the ball, rather than shy away from it.
The assets that make Robinson a great player are certainly different than those that fueled Zack Novak during his tenure in Ann Arbor. But GR3 could use a little bit of that same grit, fire, and toughness. When you’re arguably the most talented player on the floor virtually every game and the results aren’t backing that status up, then something is missing.
Soft. A lack of toughness. A confidence crisis. Whatever it is, I fully expect Beilein and his excellent group of assistant coaches to remedy it at some point this season. But a 5-3 start with #2 ranked Arizona coming to town next weekend has given cause for concern.
Michigan is in the midst of three full days of prep ahead of the Houston Baptist game on Saturday, where they will undeniably look great for long stretches against a weak team. And then they get a full week to prep for the Wildcats’ invasion. In fact, Saturday marks a stretch for the Wolverines where they only play once/week for their next four games heading into Big Ten play. That elongated stretch of days off each week and invaluable practice time may be just what the doctor ordered.
This team needs to find something to rally around. They’re a bunch of nice guys, albeit with a truckload of talent. Sometimes, to reach the next level, you just gotta get plain nasty.
Look no further than McGary. Having missed all of the preseason and not suiting up until the Iowa State game, Michigan’s space-eater is just now beginning to round into shape. So far, Michigan’s guards have shown a reluctance to feed him in the post. This must change. McGary is a skilled passer and can get his shot in the paint as needed. He is outstanding at triggering fast breaks and is Michigan’s emotional gas tank.
Last year Michigan entered Big Ten play with a spotless record. This time around they could very well come into the conference slate with four losses. The Arizona game is the perfect time for this team to rise up and say ‘enough is enough’. The Wolverines have dominated their home court in recent seasons and cannot let a team from the west come into their gym and pick them apart.
If Robinson is just an extremely talented role player at the college level then so be it. If this team will get the majority of its points from LeVert and Stauskas, I’m ok with that. But I am sure of one thing – Mitch McGary didn’t come back for his sophomore season to get out-toughed by the opposition.
Whether he knows it yet or not, this is his team. Michigan will go as McGary goes.
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