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Michigan’s loss to Penn State should not have been this surprising

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Unfortunately, the cracks in the armor have been there for the Wolverines.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Penn State Linsey Fagan-USA TODAY Sports

After starting the season 17-0, Michigan has now lost three of its last eight. Two were understandable, facing pesky opponents on the road, but Tuesday night’s loss to Penn State was inexcusable. Sadly, though, it was not completely unpredictable, as the Wolverines have looked less than stellar lately.

Even the very best teams in the nation slip up occasionally, but Michigan has shown signs of weakness for a while now. Narrow victories over less opponents fueled by repeated deficiencies should have signaled warning lights ahead of time. With just six games left in the season — four against tough competition — there need to be changes, fast.

A similar story on offense

Too many times this year has Michigan started slowly in the first half. Typically these issues have been resolved at halftime, but against the Nittany Lions the hole was simply too far to dig out of. The 13-point deficit was built from familiar problems: subpar three-point shooting (25 percent), poor defensive rebounding (seven offensive rebounds allowed), and stagnant offense late in the possession.

The Wolverines were much improved in the second half, but it was simply not enough. Six turnovers in each half was uncharacteristic, as was Zavier Simpson’s poor finishing, including his 0-for-3 mark at the rim. Thanks to a late surge, the offense did manage 1.04 PPP, but too many of these points came when the team was very behind.

A complete shocker on defense

Michigan has been nothing short of elite on defense, owning some of the top marks in points per possession and effective field goal rate. However, a lackadaisical defense on Tuesday allowed too many offensive boards and open jumpers, fueling a season-worst 1.13 PPP. Sure, some of this was due to end-of-game fouling, but the first 35 minutes were uninspiring.

Was this letdown predictable, and should this be an issue going forward? Hard to say, but the answer to both is probably “not really.” The Wolverines still have a good defense, and as long as Teske is not in foul trouble, they should be ok. It does seem like many opponents have been missing easy twos, however, and if some of those start to fall, there could be some negative regression ahead.

Two-man show

Charles Matthews is apparently good again, going 3-for-4 from deep and 2-for-4 from the mid-range. His team-leading 24 points were vital, as he is one of the few Wolverines capable of taking charge when the offense gets stale. Another is Jordan Poole, who led with a 33.8 percent usage rate, but his 1-for-8 line from three speaks to a recurring issue.

Other than those two, the rest of the offense was not great. Ignas Brazdeikis had his second poor game in a row, and even Jon Teske had a rough night going 0-for-3 at the rim. Odds are, some of these players will bounce back, but the offense has not exactly been lethal lately. The defense is much more likely to return to form than its counterpart.