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Iowa 72, Michigan 54: The Ugly Reminder

Michigan's recent spike in performance came crashing down vs. Iowa.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Last night was what a team missing its two best players is supposed to look like.

When Caris LeVert suffered his season-ending foot fracture, I promptly declared that the season was over Michigan, for which I understandably received flak for abandoning hope so quickly. But I was only trying to tell it how I saw it, and what I saw then was an offense that was already struggling tremendously about to lose its best offensive player just as it was about to embark on the most difficult portion of its schedule. And, with Michigan needing to win a large share of those games just to reenter the NCAA Tournament bubble, it seemed all but impossible, even for John Beilein.

But, for the past two weeks, Beilein's depleted Wolverines had demonstrated that maybe I'd been too hasty to write them off. With a road win at Rutgers, a second-half thrashing of Nebraska, and two overtime losses to Wisconsin and Michigan State, Michigan was playing some of its best basketball. And the Wolverines were doing it with a struggling Zak Irvin, a slumping Spike Albrecht, unheralded true freshmen Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Aubrey Dawkins, and the undersized Max Bielfeldt, who had been known more for his ginormous calves than his play before this season. Michigan's spike in performance despite its ragtag roster was remarkable, causing me to write about how Beilein is a miracle worker and even cobble together a case for how he could be the Big Ten Coach of the Year. And, suddenly, the idea that Michigan could make a run at an NCAA Tournament at-large bid, though still a longshot, no longer seemed ludicrous.

But this remarkable run by Michigan came to a screeching halt against Iowa last night.

After the Wolverines started strong and battled back and forth with the Hawkeyes for the first 13 minutes, even leading by as many as six points, Iowa shifted to its 2-3 zone and Michigan subsequently imploded. Much like Eastern Michigan's 2-3 zone did back in December, Iowa's 2-3 zone suffocated Michigan's offense. The Wolverines could not find a way to get the ball into the middle of the zone, so, instead, they repeatedly wasted the entire shot clock making lazy passes around the perimeter before jacking up contested long-range jumpers. The result: Michigan did not score in the final 7:02 of the first half and went a span of 8:50 without making a single field goal. It was horrendous to watch.

And that wasn't even Michigan's biggest problem of the night. As Michigan's offensive wheels spun in place, Iowa used its significant size advantage -- the Hawkeyes are the nation's fifth-tallest team -- to attack the rim against Michigan's poor defensive rotations and crash the offensive glass on almost every trip down the floor. Thus, the Hawkeyes went on a 23-4 run thanks to layup after dunk after layup after dunk and took a 17-point lead heading into the first television timeout of the second half. Michigan tried to rally and make a game of it, but, when the Wolverines cut the deficit to nine points with eight minutes left and were on the verge of putting the Hawkeyes on their heels, Iowa grabbed offensive rebounds on back-to-back possessions and added five second-chance points to put to bed any shot of a Michigan comeback. Nonetheless, Michigan kept upping the defensive pressure, and Iowa kept shredding the defense for wide-open looks at the rim, finishing with 18 layups or dunks and 138.4 points per 100 possessions. Not only was this Michigan's worst defensive performance of the season, it was Michigan's worst defensive performance against any Big Ten opponent in the KenPom era (since 2000-01). Ouch.

The outcome: an 18-point loss that's worse than it looks given the game's snail pace.

It was an ugly game for the Wolverines in many respects, but, ultimately, this game served as a reminder of the situation in which they find themselves. It reminded us that, no matter how amazing of a coach Beilein is or how well Michigan played the last two weeks, this is still a team that is missing its two best players in LeVert and Derrick Walton Jr. It reminded us that many of the available Michigan contributors still are raw and developing. And it reminded us that we still need to temper our expectations for what this team should accomplish as we close out the season in the coming weeks.

Other Thoughts

What the hell happened to Michigan's defense?

One week ago, Michigan had the best defense in Big Ten play, surrendering only 98.4 points per 100 possessions through its first nine conference games. Now, after allowing Iowa to post an offensive rate of 138.4 points per 100 possessions, which was Iowa's second-best offensive performance against a Big Ten opponent in the KenPom era, Michigan is eighth in defensive efficiency in Big Ten play. What Iowa did to Michigan was abusive, and the Wolverines had no response. Michigan's rotations were slow and late, which is why it looked like Iowa was running a layup line all night. When Michigan tried to slow down the Hawkeyes with zone, Iowa tore it apart with precision passing that led to wide-open flushes. And, on the off chance Iowa actually missed a shot, the Hawkeyes out-muscled Michigan to rebound their miss 43 percent of the time, turning nine offensive boards into 13 second-chance points. Michigan simply couldn't get stops, and it makes you wonder how the Wolverines had the Big Ten's best defense last week.

Another seven-minute-long field-goal drought? Seriously?

The best offense in the nation for back-to-back seasons to this ...

Michigan's Field-Goal Droughts (Longer Than Seven Minutes)
Opponent
Score & Clock
Before FG Drought
Length of FG Drought
FGM-A
During Drought
Score & Clock
After Drought
Final Result
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
Purdue 35-27, U-M (19:14, 2H) 12:34 0-13 45-39, PU (6:40, 2H) 64-51, PU
Ohio State 39-24, OSU (0:38, 1H) 7:10 0-13 52-24, OSU (13:28, 2H) 71-52, OSU
Northwestern 29-22, U-M (5:04, 1H) 7:04 0-7 34-31, NU (18:00, 2H) 56-54, U-M
Iowa 21-19, U-M (7:02, 1H) 8:50 0-9 35-23, IOWA (18:12, 2H) 72-54, IOWA

Not only was this Michigan's eighth (EIGHTH) seven-minute-long field-goal drought of the season, this came against Iowa, who has the worst defensive efficiency in Big Ten play, though it should be mentioned that facing Wisconsin twice is a big reason for that.

Michigan now is 1-7 when this happens with seven of them turning leads into deficits.

Michigan sorely misses having a player that can get a bucket to stop the bleeding.

Michigan will see lots more 2-3 zone, but I'm not sure if it'll have an answer.

Given how well Eastern Michigan and Iowa's 2-3 zones have stifled Michigan's offensive rhythm, I expect most Michigan opponents will run it. The source of Michigan's troubles against the 2-3 zone is its inability to get the ball inside the paint, where a Wolverine then could shoot a floater, take it to the rim, or kick it out once the zone collapses. The best way is to find a lengthy shooter with vision in the high post. The problem, though, is the only Wolverine that can do all of those things is the injured LeVert. Irvin and Dawkins don't have the vision and can't finish in traffic. Abdur-Rahkman can finish at the rim, but he doesn't have the length to get open at the high post. And Bielfeldt is by no means an offensive playmaker. Michigan could try to dribble into the paint, but the only one that can do so is Abdur-Rahkman. However, he still isn't skilled enough with his dribble to maneuver past the multiple defenders that will impede his penetration in a zone defense. So, instead, Michigan has tried to beat the 2-3 zone by shooting over the top of it, yet Dawkins, who scored 16 points and knocked down 4-of-7 threes last night, is the only player who has been shooting well enough in Big Ten play (51.4 pct. from three) to bust it. With no other healthy Wolverine shooting better than 32 percent from deep during the Big Ten season, I'm unsure what the answer is for Michigan to solve the 2-3 zone.

Zak Irvin remains broken.

Once again, Zak Irvin had another night where he looked uncomfortable on the court and with his shot. Irvin tallied only seven points, making just 3-of-10 shots and 1-of-6 threes, while providing little else on the stat sheet. For the Big Ten season, he's now averaging 11.0 points and 4.7 rebounds per game, but his offensive rating is an awful 89.9 because he's shooting 36.2 percent on two-pointers and 31.7 percent on three-pointers. I'm not sure if it's related to a shift in his shooting stroke, his confidence, or his health, but, after making 23-of-53 threes (43.4 pct.) in his first seven games, Irvin has made only 31-of-103 threes (30.1 pct.) since then. And it's not like this regression is only because he's hoisting more contested threes, which he is, because Irvin continues to routinely airball open threes, particularly from the corners. With Michigan likely to see lots more 2-3 zone for the rest of the season, Michigan needs Irvin to rediscover his shot fast.

At least Spike Albrecht provided us with one highlight last night.

No, I didn't know "Class B" technical fouls exist until last night.

The Hall of Horrors awaits Michigan on Sunday.

One reason why last night was such a must-win for Michigan is because the Wolverines travel to Assembly Hall, which has been a Hall of Horrors for them, on Sunday. Michigan is 12-65 against Indiana in Assembly Hall all-time and has won only one of its last 17 meetings there dating back to 1996. And that lone win in Bloomington was in 2009 when Michigan barely overcame a 20-point second-half deficit to squeeze past in overtime a Hoosiers program that had just been bombed by NCAA sanctions related to Kelvin Sampson's impermissible phone calls and would finish the season with a 6-25 record.

Indiana is a good matchup and anything is possible, but U-M is cursed in Assembly Hall.