Michigan was SMUshed by the undefeated Mustangs, 82-58, in Dallas on Tuesday night in what should be the Wolverines' last meaningful non-conference game of the month. There's no need for fluff. Let's get to it:
1. "We're a Long Way from Being Good."
Those are John Beilein's words, not mine. And they're true.
On paper, Michigan shouldn't be concerned. U-M is 6-3, has two top-75 wins away from Ann Arbor, and owns no bad losses. The Wolverines have been beaten by #10 Xavier at home, #20 SMU in Dallas, and #26 Connecticut in the Bahamas. There are lots of good teams that would attain the same results against those three opponents in those venues. And, because Michigan should cruise through the rest of its non-conference schedule -- its next four foes aren't in the KenPom top 250 -- U-M should start the Big Ten season with a 10-3 record, two quality wins, and no bad losses. That doesn't scream problems.
But there are problems. Lots of them.
The most glaring problem from a big-picture perspective is that Michigan hasn't been remotely competitive in any of its three losses. The Wolverines lost to Xavier by 16 points, trailed Connecticut by as many as 19 points in the second half before falling by 14, and were steamrolled by SMU by 24 points despite that the Mustangs' best big man, Markus Kennedy, injured his ankle in the opening minute and didn't return. And it's not as if Michigan led for long stretches of these games before collapsing at the end. The Wolverines trailed for a whopping 93:50 out of 120 minutes against these three teams:
|Team||Time Led||Time Tied||Time Trailed|
And, of that 93:50, Michigan trailed by double digits for 48:13 -- more than half of it.
That's not the sign of a good team.
However, that doesn't necessarily mean we should expect this to continue. Beilein teams have a knack for improving more than others over the course of the season, and, though the Big Ten has five teams in the KenPom top 25 at the moment (Purdue, Michigan State, Maryland, Iowa, and Indiana), the conference is down overall. This team is talented enough to earn the wins needed during Big Ten play to make the NCAA Tournament.
But, as of now, this team isn't close to contending for a Big Ten championship.
2. Michigan's Perimeter Defense is the Root of Its Problems
SMU scored 42 points in the paint against Michigan, so it would be easy to place all of that blame on Michigan's front court or claim that Michigan isn't tough enough on defense. But it also would be incorrect to do so. Michigan's biggest defensive issues are on the perimeter, and I will allow fellow Twitter friend Chris Gaerig to explain why:
Already tired of the "not enough gritty grit" narrative with this M squad. Mistaking toughness for a total inability to stop penetration.— Chris Gaerig (@cgaerig) December 9, 2015
Everyone looks bad when guards drive unabated into the lane and bigs have to help. OReb happen then too. This is not a lack of grit.— Chris Gaerig (@cgaerig) December 9, 2015
Chris is correct. Michigan's perimeter defense is completely out of sorts. SMU's guards, particularly shifty point guard Nic Moore, penetrated into the heart of Michigan's defense as much as they wanted, attacked with the pick and roll with relative ease, and unselfishly shredded any zones that Michigan threw at them. The result always was the same: Michigan's big men had to rotate over to stop the penetration, but the secondary help wasn't there. This led to wide-open dunks and layups for the Mustangs, as well as easy offensive rebound opportunities because no one was in position to box them out.
So how does Michigan fix this? Well, MGoBlog's Brian Cook pointed out John Beilein's dilemma: Michigan's best shooters (Duncan Robinson and Aubrey Dawkins) struggle tremendously on defense, while its better perimeter defenders (Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Kam Chatman) can't shoot from the outside and bog down the offense.
It's forcing Beilein to pick his poison, and he's opted to go for the shootouts.
3. But It Doesn't Help Not Having Bigs That Can Rebound
Nevertheless, the problems on the perimeter don't fully excuse Michigan's big men on the glass. The Wolverines may want their big men to box out so the guards and wings can swoop in for the defensive board. However, Michigan's best defensive rebounder is Derrick Walton (21.0 DR%), and, when he has to sit out for the second straight game with an injury, Michigan should adjust its strategy and ask its big men to grab more rebounds.
However, Michigan's big men can't. Ricky Doyle hasn't been a proficient defensive rebounder for two seasons now. Last season, his defensive rebounding rate was 11.9 percent. This season, it's 14.3 percent, with his better efforts coming against undersized teams. When Doyle is pitted against teams with athletic forwards and centers that sky for rebounds, Doyle's lack of vertical leap is exposed. It seems Doyle can't jump more than six inches off the ground. Then, there is Moritz Wagner and D.J. Wilson, who both have defensive rebounding rates hovering around 10 percent. That leaves Mark Donnal, who's rate is a respectable 18.9 percent, but his weaknesses in other areas limit his playing time.
The end result: the Mustangs rebounded 53.8 percent of their misses. Ouch.
4. Caris LeVert Never Wants to See SMU Again
On Tuesday, Caris LeVert scored five points on 1-of-13 shooting, bringing his total to nine points on 2-of-21 shooting (9.5 pct.) -- missing all 11 three-point attempts -- in two games against SMU in the past two seasons. Simply, Michigan won't win any games in which its best player performs terribly, and the Mustangs' defense seems to have LeVert's number.
Or is there more to it than just that?
Last season, one of LeVert's drawbacks as an NBA prospect was that he was just okay at driving into the lane. He often would take one big step into the paint, but he lacked the explosiveness to make that next move and finish around the rim. Through eight games this season, during which LeVert had performed like one of the better players in the nation, it seemed he had found a way to use his length to solve this issue. But, facing a lengthy SMU defense that excels at preventing penetration, those red flags rose again. Maybe this was just an outlier and a game like this won't manifest for the rest of the season, but it's something to keep an eye on as Michigan heads towards Big Ten play.
5. The Focus Now Is to Get Everyone Healthy
At this point, what's important now is for Michigan to put the SMU loss behind them and move forward, and that means focusing on getting everyone healthy. Not only does Michigan have three different players ailing right now -- Derrick Walton (left ankle), Zak Irvin (back), and Spike Albrecht (hips) -- Michigan hasn't played one game this season at full strength. That's not to say that the Wolverines will be great again once they are because, as discussed above, there are underlying issues. Nonetheless, Michigan needs to be at 100 percent when the Big Ten season begins. Though I usually am not a fan of when Michigan schedules a bunch of bottom-level Division I programs because it does nothing for Michigan's RPI, it actually helps in this situation. Michigan doesn't face a KenPom top 250 team until the Big Ten opener against Illinois on December 30th. That gives Michigan 20 days to heal because Delaware State, Northern Kentucky, Youngstown State, and Bryant won't put up a challenge. Michigan needs to take advantage of this.