1. I thought football season was over.
Can someone wake me up from this nightmare? I was told that the pain and anguish I had endured since the start of September as a Michigan fan, alumnus, writer, or however you want to classify me would cease as soon as the game clock in The Horseshoe struck 0:00 on November 29th. I was persuaded to believe that all of the torment I had suffered as Michigan football stumbled through a hellish season on and off the field would be swept away by the sight of Caris LeVert slithering into the paint for two points, Derrick Walton, Jr. hauling in a defensive rebound and leading the break in transition, Zak Irvin gunning it from downtown, and John Beilein flashing his "aw shucks" smile on the bench.
Instead, I'm hurting more now than I ever did in October and November. I expected Michigan football to lose each week those months. Gary Nova explodes for a career-high 404 passing yards and three touchdowns in a two-point loss to Rutgers? Sure. Michigan commits three special-teams gaffes in the second half against Maryland to blow a chance at bowl eligibility? Of course. Ezekiel Elliot sprints for a 44-yard touchdown on 4th & 1 in a seven-point game late in the fourth quarter? Naturally. This had become the norm.
What's not the norm is what has transpired this past week. Michigan basketball, a program that has won two Big Ten championships and and appeared in two Elite Eights in the last three seasons, has been upended at home by a NJIT program that doesn't belong to a conference and Eastern Michigan program that has forever sat in Michigan's mighty shadow in Washtenaw County. Accordingly, Michigan may be the victim of the biggest upset in all of college basketball this season and cannot even claim to be the best basketball team in its own county. And it happened in a four-day span.
This is not what was supposed to happen. This is not what Michigan fans were counting down to as football mercifully came to a close. Michigan basketball was supposed to salvage what has already been one of Michigan's most tumultuous, embarrassing athletic seasons. Instead, it's only adding to the pain fans have become all too familiar with.
And all I can ask is, "When will the nightmare finally be over?"
2. One's an anomaly, two's a trend, right?
When Michigan lost to NJIT, who was ranked No. 293 out of 351 D-I teams on KenPom entering the matchup, I expressed that the outcome was more of a fluke than something to panic about. During a season, there are games when everything just seems to go against you. As Craig Barker from Hoover Street Rag perfectly analogized, or at least someone else did, it's like when you want to break your video game controller because the Madden computer has just decided it's going to win no matter what.
That's what Michigan's game against NJIT was like. NJIT was 290th in adjusted offensive efficiency, but, that afternoon, they couldn't miss. Sure, Michigan's defense was quite porous at times, especially early in the second half, but NJIT, which had made only about 33 percent of its three-pointers this season, stroked 11-of-17 threes (64.7 pct.) and tallied 17 points on seven straight possessions down the stretch when Michigan tried to steal it at the end. And these 17 points weren't the result of routine layups either. We're talking step-back three-pointers and contested, off-balanced runners in the lane. From a low-major team. All Michigan could do was throw its arms in the air in frustration.
Last night's game wasn't that. Last night's game did not feel like a fluke. Maybe I just feel that way because Eastern Michigan won with tough zone defense, while NJIT won with miraculous shot-making, but it felt like Michigan was out-coached, out-worked, and, simply, not as good. It felt like Eastern Michigan winning was the correct result.
So should Michigan fans start panicking now? Has this become a worrisome trend?
I honestly do not know. What's so strange is that Michigan fell victim to NJIT and Eastern Michigan for two completely different reasons. The Wolverines transitioned from not possessing enough firepower to keep pace with the Highlanders in a shootout to bricking shot after shot in a defensive slugfest with the Eagles. It's difficult to diagnose Michigan's problem because these losses did not reveal "some quantifiable flaw," as ESPN college basketball writer Eamonn Brennan put it in his post-game column.
And what makes it even stranger is that, before Saturday, Michigan clearly resembled a top-20 team, earning tough wins against Oregon and Syracuse, blowing out feeble foes, and playing an unbeaten Villanova squad right down to the wire. So this sudden dive -- Michigan's plummeted from No. 20 to No. 44 on KenPom -- is way out of the blue.
If I must guess, I believe, in March, we will reflect on these games and wonder to ourselves, "How did this Michigan team lose to those two schools?" The NJIT loss was a fluke. The Eastern Michigan loss was a very green Michigan team that's still trying to work out the kinks running into one of the few opponents that can execute a devastating 2-3 zone. Plus, it's only December 10th, and good luck finding a college basketball coach that develops his roster in season more successfully than Beilein, as this study shows.
So don't press the panic button yet. But, another loss like this, we may be worrying about Michigan receiving an NCAA Tournament ticket rather than just where it's seeded.
3. Michigan's offense was offensive.
This was one of the ugliest offensive displays I have seen from a Michigan team coached by Beilein. The Wolverines tallied only 42 points against Eastern Michigan, which matched the second-fewest they have scored in a game under Beilein, and averaged 0.701 points per possession, which was their third-worst mark of efficiency under Beilein. This is what happens when you go 13:40 without a field goal in the first half and make only one field goal in a span of 8:19 in the second half, something Michigan's past two offenses, both of which led the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, rarely, if ever, did.
The cause for Michigan's offensive incompetence was Eastern Michigan's 2-3 zone, which Beilein said after the game was "as good as [he has] ever seen in [his] life." If Michigan hadn't lost, I would find this humorous because the Wolverines just shredded what many consider to be the quintessential 2-3 zone against Syracuse last week.
But Beilein was correct: Eastern Michigan's 2-3 zone was quicker and gave Michigan's offense fits. Plus, the Eagles seemed to push their zone up towards the top of the key, vacating the baseline to constrict space around the perimeter and near the free-throw line. The strategy was brilliant. Michigan's guards and wings were uncomfortable with their ball-handling and passing all night. It forced the Wolverines to turn it over on 21.7 percent of their possessions, which was their highest turnover rate this season. Then, when Michigan was able to hold onto the basketball and get shots up, those shots were not of a variety that would propel Michigan's offense to an efficient level:
(Data Source: Shot Analytics)
What Michigan did so well against Syracuse's 2-3 zone was it penetrated the gaps and got the ball in the middle of the zone. This forced the Orange to collapse around the Wolverine with the ball inside, giving him the option to shoot the mid-range jumper, dish it down low to the big man by the bucket, or kick it out to an open outside shooter.
Unfortunately, this is not what Michigan did against Eastern Michigan. Instead, the Wolverines often passed the ball around the perimeter and settled for contested three-pointers and mid-range jumpers because there was little off-the-ball movement. As you can see from the shot chart above, Michigan, which generally is one of the best shooting teams in the country, was ice cold, converting only 21.2 percent of its shots further than five feet from the basket. Michigan needed to adapt and make a concerted effort to get inside the zone for better looks, but the Wolverines never did. And it cost them dearly.
4. Another competitor celebrates in Crisler.
Recently, Michigan enjoyed what was the best home-court advantage in the Big Ten and one of the best in the nation. Before December 6th, the Wolverines had accumulated a 50-4 record in the Crisler Center since the start of the 2011-12 season. Not only was this the best home record by any Big Ten school in that span, Michigan's four losses were against some of the top teams in the country. All four of those opponents -- Purdue in 2011-12, Indiana in 2012-13, and Arizona and Wisconsin in 2013-14 -- finished no lower than No. 28 on KenPom in their respective seasons, with three of them ranked in the top six. Basically, unless you were elite, you weren't beating Michigan in Ann Arbor.
We can't say that anymore. Both NJIT and Eastern Michigan, which were ranked No. 293 and No. 132 on KenPom, respectively, before their meeting with the Wolverines, strolled into the Crisler Center and emerged victorious, celebrating on the giant block M in the middle of the court after the game. This is a sight I don't want to get used to. Ever.
5. Trouble in Tucson?
Michigan now has the burden of riding a two-game losing streak against inferior teams into Tucson, where No. 3 Arizona awaits their arrival. Since the offseason, this has been billed as Michigan's marquee non-conference game. Not only are the Wolverines challenging one of the few true national championship contenders, they are doing so in hostile territory -- Michigan's only true road game on the non-conference slate in fact.
But here's the problem: what was supposed to be a litmus test for a young Wolverines team now has the chance to break their spirit and confidence. The purpose of the games against NJIT and Eastern Michigan was to secure two easy wins that would help these Wolverines puff out their chest a bit before facing a Wildcats team that has a tremendous size, length, and, to be truthful, talent advantage. The odds were always stacked against Michigan in this game, but at least it would provide Michigan an opportunity to show its mettle and Beilein some teaching moments he could share with his team.
However, after two upset losses, I fear what a blowout loss to Arizona would do. These Wolverines are probably already down on themselves. Beilein said as much during his presser after the loss last night. And things could spiral further out of control if it turns ugly quick this Saturday. I'll be there in person to witness it if it does indeed happen.
Or maybe I'll see Michigan shoot the lights out and give Arizona a game. Who knows?