Somewhat surprisingly, both Duke and Michigan, preseason top 10 teams, entered the month of December with two losses: tonight's game in Cameron Indoor between the two talented squads would give one team a third.
The Wolverines got off to a brutal start from the field, going 2-for-10 to begin the contest as Duke's perimeter defense consistently frustrated Michigan. When the Wolverines were able to get in the paint, they missed a few bunnies early. Duke wasn't firing on all cylinders offensively, either --Michigan's zone gave Duke same trouble at times-- but they did just enough to take a 12-5 lead into the second media timeout.
Unfortunately for Michigan, after Jon Horford was rejected at the rim, Duke quickly scored at the other end, as the lead ballooned to 21-9 at the 5:57 mark of the first half. The Wolverines were on the highway to the danger zone, with no exit ramps in sight if they didn't string together a couple of buckets.
Duke benefited from a few questionable calls in the first half (a made three released after the shot clock hit zero, possession given to Duke after a ball appeared to go off Marshall Plumlee's leg, a really iffy Derrick Walton offensive foul), but the simple fact is that you don't get calls on the road (let alone at Duke).
The more important stat? Michigan made three shots from the field 15 minutes into the game. Unable to probe the creamy middle of Duke's defense, the Wolverines bricked outside shot after shot. Many of the misses weren't even close: off of the heel of the rim, wide left or right, nothing but air. It was like watching a guy who can't play guitar try to play guitar, only to keep using the excuse that the instrument is out of tune.
Fortunately for the Wolverines, Duke did its fair share of airballing, too. On one miss later in the half, Mitch McGary corraled the rebound and led the fast break, which ended in an alley oop from Nik Stauskas to Glenn Robinson III, somehow cutting the lead to 27-20 when it felt like Michigan should have been down by 20.
Duke had the final possession of the half, with Michigan in its 1-3-1 zone. Quinn Cook hit an open Tyler Thornton in the right corner, who buried the three, sending the Wolverines into the half down 32-22.
In the first half, the Wolverines shot an abysmal 30.8 percent from the field (1-for-6 from three).
The second half began in basically the same way, with Michigan just sort of hanging on as Duke failed to connect on some shots that would have really blown the game open. Lo and behold, after a coast-to-coast Walton layup, the Wolverines found themselves down just 34-28 early in the half.
Duke surged once again, upping the lead to 12 in just a couple of minutes, powered in part by some inspired two-way play by Marshall Plumlee.
No one had been playing well for the Wolverines, but Caris LeVert started assert himself with two strong takes on consecutive possessions. With very little coming from anyone else, it seemed like he was poised to lead Michigan back, if a comeback was going to happen at all.
LeVert went to work again a few minutes later, probing the heart of Duke's defense en route to an and-1, cutting the Duke lead to 46-40 with nine minutes left to play.
Then, Andre Dawkins came off the bench and hit two quick threes, back-to-back daggers quickly halting all of the fragile momentum Michigan had.
Cook buried a three with just under five minutes to play to give Duke a 16-point lead; it was all over but the shoutin'.
I said it after the first two losses and I'll say it again: unless you're talking about a team that is completely tanking, two or three losses in November/December is nothing to worry about. Michigan is still finding itself, and what better way to do it than against quality opponents like Iowa State (in one of the toughest venues in college basketball), Florida State and against Duke at Cameron Indoor.
Derrick Walton had a few positives to his game, and, if nothing else, watching Caris LeVert put the game on his shoulders late, even in vain, was a positive in my eyes. The sophomore finished with 24 points on 8-for-18 shooting. McGary was the only other Wolverines to score in the double digits (15). Meanwhile, Nik Stauskas scored just four points, all from the free throw line. More importantly, he attempted just two shots.
Michigan is not going to win a lot of games shooting like it did tonight, and that's sort of become a trend throughout the four notable data points to date (ISU, FSU, Charlotte, Duke). Once we enter 2014, the Wolverines can't expect to be able to crawl back from double digit deficits after shooting so poorly for long stretches.
Michigan has another confidence rebuilder of a game against Houston Baptist on Saturday before taking on Arizona at the Crisler Center on Dec. 14. That is a game Michigan needs to win, at home; if they do that, they'll leave the non-conference schedule with a pair of quality wins (Florida State, of course, being the other).
As for tonight, Duke did not play well and yet it still felt like Michigan was constantly on the brink of demolition. When Duke needed to respond to Michigan's mini-runs, they did, whether it was Cook, Parker, or Dawkins off of the bench. Good teams win games even if they aren't playing so well, and Duke is certainly a very good team.
Michigan is not a good team right now, but the pieces are obviously there and the non-conference schedule has done its part to throw some hardship Michigan's way. If you're John Beilein, these games will prove invaluable when Michigan enters February and March.
With that said, leaving the non-conference and beginning the Big Ten schedule is like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire (notwithstanding the Big Ten's poor performance tonight in the Challenge). Playing like this, it's hard to imagine Michigan doing a whole lot better than 9-9/10-8 in the conference.
But, with four more games left on the schedule in 2013, we'll cross that bridge when we get to it.