Game 21: Michigan Wolverines 61 - #25 Michigan St. Spartans 57
Game 22: Michigan Wolverines 87 - Iowa Hawkeyes 73
Michigan 13-9 (3-6)
Sport easily lends itself to hyperbole. Seemingly innocuous moments during games become critical points of emphasis during a broadcast or to an observant fan. How many times have you heard "They have to score" or "They have to make a stand" or "They'll look back and see that this was when it all came together"? And how many time have you heard some variation of those sayings when there's more than 10 minutes left in a game?
Turning points are a difficult thing to identify at the time they actually occur. It's only in hindsight, with a season completed and full reflection that we can accurately assess what kept a team above water or eventually made it plummet into the Mariana Trench. It's not something we can readily label, accurately, when half a basketball season is left to play.
Yet it's impossible not to recognize the significance of the Michigan Men's Basketball team's two recent victories. One was Michigan's first win in East Lansing since the Clinton administration, and the first time Michigan had truly shown its fans what it was capable of. The second was a dogged, determined performance that showed this team would not allow one win, emotional or otherwise, to be the defining moment in their season. The second win showed they wanted more than just one win over a rival before it hung up its jersey for the season.
Put simply it's been a strange season. Michigan started out hot, going 10-2 in it's non-conference season. Then the wheels seemingly came off when the Big Ten conference season started. The reason was fairly obvious. Despite leading the conference in three point shots, Michigan was dead last in three point percentage. Again. It was like trying to throw stuff in a bin with the lid super glued shut. Nothing was going in and Michigan began to pay the price.
Seven games into the conference season, Michigan was 1-6 and potentially on it's way to its most disappointing season since Beilein's first, and disastrous, 2007-2008 campaign. The losses to #1 Ohio State and #4 Kansas weren't an issue. It was against teams they should've been competitive against, they were getting blown out. Michigan lost by 19 to a mediocre Indiana team. Against a good, but beatable Northwestern team Michigan lost by 14. They were torched by Wisconsin and Purdue (by 15 and 23, respectively). Finally, they gave up a lead at home to lose to a good, but not world beating Minnesota team.
Two problems immediately became obvious. First, Michigan couldn't stop anyone from scoring. In their conference losses the Wolverines had failed to hold a single opponent below a 47% field goal percentage or 41.7% 3 point percentage. Team were seemingly open at will and draining everything that was taken.
The second issue was Michigan's offense. Despite generating open looks, Michigan couldn't hit water in the ocean. Michigan only cracked 40% from the field twice in those losses and only cracked 40% from three once. The three point percentage wouldn't be as big a deal if the Wolverines hadn't been taking as many... but they were. During these losses Michigan launched 148 three pointers out of 310 total shots. Almost 50% of their attempts were from three, and if you've watched this team, for every open three point attempt there is at least one awful/contested/launched from Nebraska three point attempt. During these games, Michigan averaged making just 35.8% of their threes. And when that's half of your offense... well... you're screwed.
Then something strange happened. The lid came off the basket. For two straight games Michigan has averaged a field goal percentage above 50% and shot better 47% from three. And it's not like Michigan is generating fewer shots over the course of these games. Against MSU Michigan had 46 field goal attempts and against MSU they had 46.
There's really no explaining it. Basketball is not a sport that makes a lot of sense, at least in terms of using past data to predict night in night out performance. It's a confidence game. At any point during a season one player or multiple players may suddenly switch "on" and light up a scoreboard from anywhere on the court. And just as suddenly, they can go completely cold. But for two games at least, Michigan has been hot.
You can point to the outstanding play of Darius Morris, Zack Novak, Tim Hardaway Jr. and the re-emergence of Jordan Morgan down low, but all of them have been playing well this year though their stat sheets might not show it. Morris, Hardaway and Novak, night in night out, have been stellar overall. The shots simply haven't been falling and the result has been losses.
Maybe when the year is over we'll look back at the last week in January and say that this was the week it all came together. This is when they got hot and stayed hot. But two games does not make a 16 game conference season. Michigan is currently 3-6 in conference play and needs to go 5-2 in it's last seven games to have a legitimate shot at a NCAA tournament invite, and they need to stay above .500 overall to have hope of making the NIT. This is no small order.
The Big Ten is loaded top to bottom with the Number 1, 10, 18, 20 and 24th ranked teams in the country on their coming schedule. Michigan currently resides in 8th place in conference, courtesy of Northwestern dropping to 3-7 in conference over the weekend. So, while things are rosy for a weekend, there is more work to do.
Still, you have to be impressed with these baby Wolverines. Playing just two upperclassmen in Stu Douglass and Zack Novak (both Juniors), Michigan seems to have a postseason future despite eight underclassmen logging significant minutes. Michigan starts three freshmen every game and yet they may sneak into one tournament or the other. That is amazing all by itself. But to get there is going to take some luck, a lot of hard work, and some major upsets.
But if the lid stays off the basket anything is possible.