1. TIME TO HIT THE PANIC BUTTON.
Welp. We have no other choice. It's time to hit it:
With a 62-51 loss to SMU, Michigan dropped its fourth straight game and third straight at home for the first time since January 2011. As I wrote in my Friday column, a loss to SMU is not a bad one -- the Mustangs were No. 44 on KenPom entering Saturday's contest -- but one the Wolverines could not afford. Why? The holidays have yet to pass and Michigan's NCAA Tournament hopes already are on life support. Yes, the Wolverines have two quality wins over Syracuse and Oregon, but the problem is they have five losses before New Year's Day, including two that'll be big blemishes on their resume (NJIT and EMU). Even if Michigan beats Coppin State tonight and then attains a 9-9 record in the Big Ten without winning the conference tournament, the Wolverines will be a 15-loss team hoping to sneak into the NCAA Tournament with an at-large bid. Though the bubble is soft every season, those are not good odds for Michigan.
Now, this doesn't mean the season is over and Michigan should throw in the towel. If we have learned anything about John Beilein in his prior seven seasons at Michigan, it's that his teams almost always improve tremendously during conference play. Look at the 2010-11 season. The Wolverines were 11-9 overall, 1-6 in the Big Ten, and riding a six-game losing streak in late January. If I had told you that Michigan would turn it around and take No. 1 seed Duke to the wire in the second round of the NCAA Tournament two months later, I would have been tossed into an insane asylum. Yet that's exactly what happened. Look at last season. Michigan was 6-4 before future first-round pick Mitch McGary was sidelined for the season with a back injury. How did Michigan respond? By winning the Big Ten outright by the biggest margin this decade. So there is still lots of season left. If the Wolverines can get back on track and win no fewer than 11 conference games, they can still punch their ticket to the Big Dance in March.
But it's going to be a steep uphill battle.
2. Another game, another critical FG drought.
Yet again, this was a game Michigan could have won in the final minutes. But, yet again, Michigan failed to do so because of another significant field-goal drought. With 7:57 remaining, Derrick Walton, Jr. knocked down a three-pointer to hand Michigan a 48-45 advantage. The Crisler Center was rocking and full of energy as the Wolverines had just turned a 10-point deficit into a three-point lead over the course of a few minutes. However, in that final 7:57, Michigan scored just three points in 13 possessions, making only 1-of-11 field-goal attempts. And, as Michigan's offense sputtered, SMU stole the game away, cobbling together a 17-0 run to seal a comfortable 11-point win on the road.
Unfortunately, for the Wolverines, this is not an isolated incident:
Score & Clock
Before FG Drought
|Length of FG Drought||
Score & Clock
|Villanova||20-18, U-M (7:17, 1H)||10:54||0-12||33-20, VU (17:23, 2H)||60-55, VU|
|NJIT||44-38, U-M (15:30, 2H)||7:52||0-7||53-46, NJIT (7:38, 2H)||72-70, NJIT|
|Eastern Michigan||10-2, U-M (15:25, 1H)||13:40||0-12||17-15, EMU (1:45, 1H)||45-42, EMU|
|SMU||48-45, U-M (7:57, 2H)||7:08||0-9||62-48, SMU (0:49, 2H)||62-51, SMU|
So what's the cause of these lengthy field-goal droughts? Well ...
3. Michigan's offense is still broken.
Gone are the days when Michigan's offense would lead the nation -- and break records -- in efficiency. Last season, Michigan's offense exceeded one point per possession in 33 of 37 games and never failed to exceed 0.8 points per possession. Yet the Wolverines have failed to break 0.8 points per possession in each of their past three games, averaging 0.701 PPP vs. Eastern Michigan, 0.799 PPP at Arizona, and now 0.757 PPP vs. SMU. Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, and Jordan Morgan aren't walking through that door.
The source of Michigan's offensive struggles is twofold. First, as I discussed before Michigan traveled to Tucson, the Wolverines' shot selection has been troubling during this tough stretch. They still cannot find easy looks around the rim, instead settling for contested jumpers, which I believe stems from the jarring ineffectiveness of Michigan's pick-and-roll game. Though it seemed Michigan tried to attack the rim a bit more on Saturday, the truth is that 36 of Michigan's 54 field-goal attempts were three-pointers against SMU. That is two-thirds of Michigan's shots. Generally, that is way too many, but it can be acceptable as long as a team is making a decent percentage of those threes.
But that's the second problem: Michigan is ice cold from downtown. In their first eight games, the Wolverines made 75-of-176 three-pointers for an exceptional rate of 42.6 percent. Yet, in their past three games, they drained only 19-of-83 for a horrid rate of 22.9 percent. While this percentage cannot be viewed in a vacuum because many three-pointers have been contested and out of the flow of Michigan's offense, the Wolverines have also missed too many wide-open looks from the corner and above the break. And it's not as if this team cannot make three-pointers. We saw last year that this team has multiple deep threats. But this is a team-wide shooting slump that's killing Michigan.
4. At least Mark Donnal showed some life.
It was supposed to be Ricky Doyle's shining moment, making his first collegiate start, but it was Mark Donnal, who had been demoted to the bench to make way for Doyle, who provided a spark for Michigan. While Doyle struggled, especially with his defensive positioning, allowing SMU's bigs to finish around him rather than over him too often, Donnal had his best game of the season. He finished with a career-high 13 points on 4-of-6 shooting and four rebounds in just 14 minutes. Though there were still times when Donnal looked lost on offense -- his screens at the top of the key leave a lot to be desired -- he was more decisive with the ball in his hands than we had seen previously. He didn't hesitate to fire when he had open shots and looked confident in his jumper, even hitting two triples. Maybe being relegated to the bench was the motivating tool he needed.
5. Time to acknowledge Michigan's injuries.
I know Michigan State fans will give me flak for this after I repeatedly ridiculed Tom Izzo for his constant whining about injuries and playing "weird guys" last season, but it's time to acknowledge Michigan's injuries may be playing a serious role in this downturn in performance the past two weeks. Though we aren't handed an official injury report before each game, it's evident that Caris LeVert, Spike Albrecht, and Walton have nagging ailments. LeVert had his shooting hand bandaged on Saturday, and it may be a big reason why he's scored only 22 points on 7-of-29 shooting (24.1 pct.) in his three games since his 32-point outburst against NJIT. Albrecht is dealing with an undisclosed significant injury that has limited him to just five points on 2-of-10 shooting and seven turnovers in his past three games. And Walton was noticeably limping throughout Saturday's game, which may be why he's made only three of his last 15 three-pointers.
Every team must work through the bumps and bruises they'll endure during the long season, but injuries likely have a larger toll on Michigan than most. Why? Michigan doesn't have the experience or the bench to mitigate the harm. They're one of the youngest teams in the nation with seven freshmen and only three upperclassmen, but those freshmen, especially Kameron Chatman, have yet to find their stride. Thus, Beilein has been relying on his starters to carry the load -- Michigan is 38th out of 351 D-I teams in the percentage of minutes given to the starters. But, if those starters, including Albrecht who plays starter minutes, aren't healthy, Michigan will suffer accordingly.
After tonight's game against Coppin State, Michigan will have seven days off until it opens the Big Ten season against Illinois on December 30th. It is imperative that Michigan uses this time to heal and rest because, if Michigan has any shot to make a run at an NCAA Tournament invite, it will need LeVert, Albrecht, and Walton at full go.