The Minnesota and Michigan State losses can be chalked up to chaotic COVID-forced scheduling. Michigan had beaten Minnesota 10 days earlier 82-57 and this difficult stretch of the schedule (four ranked opponents in a row) unsurprisingly yielded one defeat.
Michigan State and Michigan played twice in three days: the first game the Wolverines won and secured (at least to everyone outside of the state of Illinois) the Big Ten regular season championship. With the title in hand and five days until the Big Ten Tournament, the Wolverines were unmotivated and dropped the rematch at Breslin.
With those to the side, let’s use examples from the losses to Illinois, Ohio State and UCLA for trends or red flags that require resolution in order for the Wolverines to take that next step: a national championship.
Big Problems at Small Forward
Franz Wagner was critical to Michigan’s success last season, averaging 12.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and three assists. Even further, Wagner’s contributions on the defensive end of the court were invaluable to a team that made it to the Elite Eight.
However, these three specific losses were three of Wagner’s five worst scoring games last season, with UCLA and Illinois being the bottom two. He shot a combined 4-of-29 from the field for a total of 14 points — including the infamous air ball at the end of the UCLA game — in these three contests.
This is not an anti-Franz take by any means, but in order for Michigan to take that next step, it cannot have an offensive black hole from a 30 minute-per-game player in three of the most important games of the season.
Enter: Caleb Houstan.
The talented five-star freshman is projected to contribute immediately and start at small forward for the 2021 Wolverines. While an adjustment period to the college game is expected, his polished offensive skillset should be on full display by January.
Houstan becoming a consistent scoring threat for the Wolverines would provide them with respected offensive players at all five positions, which is vital for sustained success in April.
Death by 3
Michigan was far from a “live by the three” team last year, but shot an effective percentage for most of the season. The Wolverines averaged 19.3 three-point-attempts (261 nationally), but connected at a 38.1% clip (15 nationally).
However, the volume and potency of Michigan’s offensive attack were reduced in these three losses in large part due to their ineffective long range shooting.
The Wolverines understandably like to operate inside-out on offense with All-American Hunter Dickinson being the focal point. But when the team struggles to shoot the ball around him, it allows opponents to trap more easily and guard him with multiple defenders.
Against Illinois and UCLA especially, Michigan combined to shoot only 5-of-18 from beyond the arc. In two games, they could not combine for their single-game average for attempts and 28% from three vastly limits an offense.
Michigan must at least be respectable from three in order for Dickinson to feast upon single coverage in the paint and balance out the offense.
The Elitist Problem
Does Michigan have an answer for an elite scorer?
LSU’s Cameron Thomas gave the team fits in the Round of 32 last year. While moderately alarming, the Wolverines withstood his best efforts and pulled away in the second half.
Thomas was one of the premier scorers in all of college basketball last year, and the thought was Michigan won’t face another opponent with a weapon like him. On paper, that was true, but the NCAA Tournament created an opportunity for a former Kentucky transfer to ascend.
UCLA’s Johnny Juzang single-handedly ended the season for the Wolverines scoring 28 of his team’s 51 points in a two-point victory over Michigan.
So how does Michigan overcome a scorer of this caliber?
Ideally, the answer would be balanced team scoring, but when the Wolverines are struggling offensively and the opponent has a player on a heater, where do they turn? Is it one of the talented freshmen? Is it just hoping the team avoids sustained cold spells?
Unfortunately, there is only speculation and no clear answer before the season. But the Wolverines must choose how they want to overcome this potential hurdle in the NCAA Tournament, especially with Juzang still lurking around Los Angeles.
Michigan could adapt the 2009 North Carolina model and rely on offensive production from seven players. Or follow the 2018 Virginia Cavaliers model to the degree of smothering opponents. With this roster and the positional versatility, Juwan Howard has options.
But in order to win a national championship, Michigan must have an answer.