Michigan-No. 1 Arizona: Playing With Fire

Leon Halip

The Wolverines dropped to 6-4 on Saturday after losing to the top-ranked Arizona Wildcats, 72-70.

Saturday was a day circled on most Michigan fans' schedules before the season, even more so once the Arizona Wildcats ascended to the top spot in the rankings. It was a game Michigan needed, both for post-season seeding purposes and for a boost of confidence as Big Ten play approaches.

Michigan led for most of the game, even holding an 8-point lead with under seven minutes to play. A Caris LeVert three that would've extended the lead to 11 fell off the mark. Perhaps those additional three points would've been enough to keep the Wildcats at bay; but, given how the Wolverines defended and rebounded down the stretch, it probably wouldn't have been.

Even while Michigan held that lead throughout most of the game, they were playing with fire. In the first half and the early stages of the second, the Wildcats didn't finish around the basket and on all sorts of putback attempts. At that point, Michigan fans could certainly be happy that the Wildcats were missing, but it only seemed a matter of time before Arizona's superior size and athleticism resulted in some made buckets on the interior.

In the final quarter of the game, that is exactly what happened. Before Arizona went to the free throw line at the end, they scored on seven consecutive possessions. Michigan had no answer for athletic forwards Brandon Ashley and Aaron Gordon, who finished with a combined 32 points on 15-for-27 shooting.

The Wildcats grabbed 17 offensive rebounds on Saturday afternoon, making for a discomfiting (if you're a Michigan fan) offensive rebounding percentage of 50 percent.

The aforementioned domination by very good, very athletic players on the No. 1 team in the country isn't something to be truly upset about, in and of itself. Arizona is a very good team, one that will win a lot of games this season and make a run come March.

What is troubling is the fact that Michigan's struggles on the defensive end can no longer be explained away by small sample size. Whether it's Melvin Ejim, Charlotte's Willie Clayton, Okaro White, Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker or Brandon Ashley and Aaron Gordon, Michigan very obviously has a problem defending any sort of athleticism at the forward spot.

Jon Horford is a solid player for Michigan defensively, but doesn't bring the offense. On the other hand, Mitch McGary is obviously one of the best around on the offensive end when he's at his best, but isn't exactly a consistent difference maker on the defensive end. In the paint, Michigan basically has to choose between offense paired with little defense and minimal offense paired with solid defense.

Part of the problem is that Michigan's perimeter defense hasn't exactly been staunch, as Derrick Walton and his fellow guards have not done a good job keeping in front of guards, which is a basic requirement for even vaguely competent defense. Get beat off the dribble and the dominoes start to fall until someone's getting an open three or a dunk.

At this point, we already know that Nik Stauskas and Spike Albrecht aren't great defensive players, but they, in addition to guys like Walton, LeVert and Zak Irvin need to get better if Michigan has any hope not getting eviscerated by teams with quick guards and talent at the forward spots.

No, zone is not and probably never will be the answer. It'll continue to serve its purpose as a useful change-up or in desperation mode, but no more than that.

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Offensively, Michigan continues to produce intermittent stretches of elite offense interspersed among fringe tournament team level play.

Simply put, Michigan is not going to beat many teams of consequence if Mitch McGary is putting up three shots in 23 minutes of play. If McGary had a truly polished post game, you'd think that getting him to touch the ball on every possession would be an enforced imperative by Beilein. But, that is not the case. Regardless, McGary is not touching the ball as much as he needs to.

As I mentioned in the recap post on Saturday, the biggest positive takeaway was Glenn Robinson III's first half, during which he scored 16 points on 7-for-7 shooting. For the first time in a while, Robinson attacked the rim and looked like the dynamic, athletic slasher that Michigan fans continue to hope he'll become. Unfortunately, Robinson only pitched in four points in the second half; still, that first half was a good start. Doing that against the No. 1 team in the country should, in theory, lend credence to the notion that Robinson can do that against anyone.

Meanwhile, at the point, Spike Albrecht's continued role is both a good and a bad thing. On the one hand, it is nice to have a player like Albrecht coming off of the bench, taking care of the ball and knocking down threes without fear (Albrecht went 3-for-4 from 3-point land on Saturday). However, the fact that Walton got just 14 minutes to Albrecht's 25 is an unfortunate indicator of Walton's struggles to progress and become an impact player.

That's not to say that anyone should have expected Walton to be Trey Burke right away (or even the freshman Trey Burke, who was also pretty good), but it's clear that he's still finding his way. On the bright side, Walton has played in some tough environments against some very good teams.

However, Big Ten basketball is a whole different animal, and you have to wonder how many games Michigan will win from January on if the Walton-Albrecht minute distribution continues as such.

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I've made the following comparison a few times, and I think it's worth mentioning one more time. No, nobody can be happy about a 6-4 start, even considering Michigan's youth and a roster looking to replace two current NBA players (guys who seem to be doing quite well in the league, I might add).

With that said, the Wisconsin Badgers started 6-4 last season, a fairly disappointing start after nearly reaching the Elite 8 the season before. What happened the rest of the way? Well, Bo Ryan's squad finished with a first round bye in the Big Ten tournament in Chicago and a 5-seed in the Big Dance.

Last year's UW squad boasted quite a bit more experience than Michigan's does this year, but 2013-14 Michigan is undoubtedly more talented. The point is, this is not the end of the world. If you are a Michigan fan and you approach college basketball with a football mindset (i.e. every loss is a calamity), well, college basketball might not be for you.

Just like last year's UW squad, run for most of the year by first-year starter Traevon Jackson (he was a sophomore last year, but logged just 5.4 minutes per game in 2011-12), Walton will get better as the year goes along. Like Jackson, Michigan doesn't need Walton to be a primary scorer; with guys like Stauskas, McGary, LeVert and Robinson on the roster, Walton simply needs to take care of the ball, hit a three or two and, most importantly, find his way as a distributor. This, naturally, is a far different dynamic than last year's squad, run by Burke, who was a scorer first and a distributor second (not that he wasn't good at the latter, too).

On Saturday, Michigan had just nine assists as a team (to 11 turnovers). That simply needs to get better, and it starts from the point position.

In any case, Michigan has another tough PAC 12 opponent coming up this Saturday in Brooklyn; if the Wolverines can pull off a comfortable win (let alone any sort of win) against Stanford, Michigan will have some good feelings to use as fuel heading into the new year and the Jan. 2 trip to Minnesota.

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