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Revisiting Michigan basketball’s late game struggles: ‘All of us have to do (better)’

After starting the season 3-0, Michigan is 1-5 in its last six games, with four of those losses coming within six points or less.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK
Jacob Singer Jake Singer is a junior at the University of Michigan majoring in Political Science. He is a Michigan Football and Basketball Writer for SB Nation's Maize and Brew

The Michigan Wolverines came into the 2023-24 season on a mission to right last season’s wrongs, primarily with an emphasis on late-game situations.

Michigan went 4-13 last season in games decided within six points. According to interim head coach Phil Martelli, “If we were 13-4, there would be a banner hanging up in there for (making) another NCAA Tournament appearance.”

Because of the team’s performance in these scenarios last season, the Wolverines worked tirelessly this offseason to be on the winning end of close games.

Nine games into the season, and Michigan has not improved in that category. In fact, the Wolverines are actually playing worse.

After starting the season 3-0, blowing out UNC Asheville, Youngstown State and St. John’s, the team is 1-5 in the last six games, with four of them coming within six points or less.

After the loss Tuesday night to the Indiana Hoosiers, Nimari Burnett and Will Tschetter were brutally honest about Michigan’s play as of late.

“I think it starts off early on with defense, kind of setting that tone,” Burnett said. “We’re not setting the tone defensively early on. We wait until they hit us a few times with some early buckets for us to (get some stops). It (needs to) start with 20 minutes in the first half. And then once we have that mentality, everything else takes care of itself.”

The Wolverines gave up just three three-pointers to the Hoosiers, but they did give up 52 points in the paint. In addition to that, Michigan was leading at some point under five minutes in all four losses, showing it could not maintain leads late in games.

“I mean, since we got to the beginning of practice in September, we always talked about score, stop, score, stop, score, stop,” Tschetter said. “It felt like we started to get a little bit complacent with (we’d) score, they’d score, (we’d) score, they’d score, and then, I mean, we’re not going to shoot 100 percent from the field, so we’d miss and we’d let that affect us on the other end. So I think it’s almost a little bit of a mindset switch that we have to have that we really can’t have our offense affect what we’re doing on the defensive end. How we fix that, obviously, there are many ways, but we have to.”

The team has shown it has the pieces to win these games. Dug McDaniel and Olivier Nkamhoua are averaging 19.4 and 17.0 points per game, respectively. Tschetter is shooting 73.3 percent from three-point range this season (11-for-15). Terrance Williams II and Burnett have been extremely valuable role-player pieces as well with Williams averaging 10.8 PPG and 4.4 RPG, and Burnett averaging 9.3 PPG and 4.6 RPG. Not to mention, Jaelin Llewellyn returned to game action last weekend, which will take some minutes off of McDaniel’s plate going forward.

When the stats look good, something else needs to click to get the team over the hump.

“We have all the right tools,” Tschetter said. “It’s just how we’re gonna put those tools in the right spot in order to win and how we’re going to come together. We’re going to click, like Nimari believes it, everyone believes that we’re going to click eventually. Whether it’s talk more, whether it’s go get another offensive rebound, whether it’s pass up a good shot for a great shot, whether it’s push harder in transition, we’re gonna find (it). We’ve seen it click before, first three games, exhibition, scrimmage like we know what it takes, we just have to get back. We gotta get our swagger back.”

Martelli added: “It’s a play. “I still think that their awareness, the way they speak to each other in those moments — it’s not just hearing the noise of the crowd, but you have to listen to the instructions. And all of us, not players only, all of us have to do (better). And we need one to break through, we need a breakthrough one where it does come out on the right side.”

The Wolverines have been competitive in just about every game they have played this season. Different players have stepped up each game. When there isn’t one primary scorer the whole stadium knows is willing to take the last shot, that can be good and bad for a team in these late-game scenarios. The plethora of talent is there, but the results still aren’t showing.

“We all want to win,” Tschetter said. “That’s not a question of our character as teammates or as players. I can honestly look every single guy in the face and everyone’s disappointed in a play that didn’t go their way, what they could have done better. And we’re looking for solutions. We’re not looking to make excuses.”