Michigan is elite and by any measure is one of the best squads in the country. However, no team wants to enter the NCAA Tournament with losses in three of its past five games, regardless of how well the previous 19 went. Furthermore, the injury scare with Eli Brooks and the devastating loss of Isaiah Livers make matters even worse for the Wolverines, who are quickly becoming a trendy upset candidate in bracket pools.
Missing Livers is a big deal, but can the same be said for the three losses? The Illinois game was embarrassing, but the Illini are clearly one of the nation’s top teams and were playing with an intense chip on their shoulder. Meanwhile, the Michigan State and Ohio State losses were both marred by bad injury news, and while it would have been great to win those games, neither were mission-critical in terms of standings or seeding.
The losses cannot be excused, but they can be explained. With the finish line now in sight, the question becomes how likely are these issues to repeat themselves when the margin for error is zero. Distilling the losses down to one main problem shows where Michigan might be most vulnerable.
Shake it off
The Wolverines did not play well in East Lansing, but very well could have won the regular season finale (though it would not have counted for anything other than pride). The biggest reason for the loss was Rocket Watts, who went 8-for-14 inside the arc. This was easily his best game of the season, and it fueled the Spartans to a 1.09 points per possession (PPP) mark after scoring just 0.76 PPP three days prior.
Watts did the majority of his work in the midrange, where his efficiency (and everyone else’s) is less than great. In fact, he entered the game 4-for-17 from two and has been a terrible shooter all year (the Michigan comparison to his effective field goal rate is Terrance Williams). This game looks like an anomaly; the Wolverines own the third-best two-point defense in the country and should be able to prevent this type of defeat going forward.
Death from above
The Big Ten Tournament loss came from outside the arc, with Ohio State going 12-for-22 from deep. Along with Maryland, the Buckeyes have been the most successful from three against Michigan this year, shooting well above their season average in both games. There is room for defensive improvement here, but there is always a bit of luck in three-point shooting as well.
This is not necessarily a reason for concern, but in the tournament I would rather face a team that works in the paint than a lethal team from long range. The opponent that stands out in this area is Florida State, which was ninth in the country at 39.0 percent. The Wolverines were near the top of the Big Ten in opposing three-point percentage, but it just takes one hot opponent to end a season in March. With Livers out of the defensive rotation, it leaves one more avenue for potential problems.
Michigan’s most demoralizing loss was easily against Illinois, where the normally reliable offense completely dried up. At 0.77 PPP, only the Minnesota game was close to this level of inept, and it was just painful to watch the Wolverines shoot 35.7 percent inside the arc. The Illini defense is legit and deserves credit, but this was a rough sight to see.
It hurts to lose Livers, but the player Michigan really needs to step up is Hunter Dickinson. The freshman ended the season pretty quiet — especially the Illinois game — but was very effective against Ohio State. If the Wolverines end up seeing Alabama in the Elite Eight it very well may come down to how effective they can be in the paint. Though the Crimson Tide ranks second in overall defense, their interior can be exploited. Without a big game by the conference’s Freshman of the Year, though, it would be very difficult to advance to the Final Four.