John Beilein Can't Make His Players Older And Other Revelations From The Past Four Games
The past four games have been a rude awakening for a Michigan basketball team once thought to be the best in the country. That same team is now looking up at three teams in the Big Ten standings, not to mention swiftly falling from contention for a one-seed.
The first two losses of this 1-3 stretch were understandable in both outcome and form; losing competitive games at Indiana and Wisconsin—while getting royally screwed by the officials in the latter—is understandable for a team of any caliber. Last night's debacle in the Breslin Center, however, took the cracks exposed in the three prior games and turned them into gaping crevasses.
In an effort to figure out how much to panic, how much to not, and where we go from here, here's a collection of thoughts on this recent stretch.
JOHN BEILEIN CAN'T MAKE HIS PLAYERS OLDER
I shut off my laptop last night after getting multiple tweets asking if John Beilein was at least a big part of the problem. As far as I can tell, Beilein made one critical coaching error last night: removing Trey Burke after his third foul, which sparked a quick 5-0 Spartan run early in the second half. At that point, however, State had already spent the game imposing their will on Michigan, and with the way the game played out it's hard to imagine Burke being in the game for that two-minute stretch would've changed the outcome.
The problem is not John Beilein, who's done a masterful job of putting this team together and coaching them into an offensive juggernaut. The problem is that he can't make his players any older, and now we're seeing why that's an issue. As it turns out, getting experience on the fly in the toughest conference in the country makes for some growing pains; there's no knowing how five freshmen (six if you count Max Bielfeldt) are going to respond when thrown into critical roles in adverse situations.
Ideally, this is a team that would come back intact next year and be an odds-on favorite to make the Final Four—they need the experience, conditioning, and added size. Unfortunately, the odds of that happening are slim to none.
INTERIOR DEFENSE IS A PROBLEM
The hope was that an unstoppable offense would cover for Michigan's defensive shortcomings, but when the offense isn't unstoppable, boy do those shortcomings get exposed. Even in the victory over Ohio State, the Wolverines got abused on the interior defensively, and their two-point defense is now dead last in the conference—B1G opponents connect on 48.9% of their twos against Michigan.
The injury to Jordan Morgan, the team's best on-ball interior defender, has hurt, but the problems go much deeper. Mitch McGary is an active defender with a ton of potential on that end, but he's also prone to freshman mistakes and positional errors, like the one that allowed Jared Berggren to drive for an and-one dunk late in the Wisconsin game. Jon Horford isn't at the same level of on-ball defense as Morgan and he fouls far too much—7.7(!) per 40 minutes in conference play.
Then there's Robinson, who's clearly hit a wall and is struggling mightily to defend larger players. He's not big enough to defend a guy like Derrick Nix or Adreian Payne one-on-one, nor does he have the stamina at this point to attempt to do so and still have an impact on the other end of the floor. He's missing switches and has been late getting out to his man on the perimeter—freshman mistakes, and ones that can't be made in critical moments.
Michigan can spell Robinson with Max Bielfeldt for stretches, but Bielfeldt's offensive limitations make that only a stopgap solution—by my charting, in about a game's worth of offensive possessions in conference play with Bielfeldt on the floor, Michigan is scoring just 0.90 points per possession. The Wolverines are going to need Robinson to find a way out of his funk, plain and simple.
BURKE IS STILL THE LONE CREATOR
When the best point guard in the country leaves the court, there's obviously going to be a bit of a dropoff offensively. Michigan's Burke-free offense is downright stagnant, however, because none of the other players can create a shot at the rim off the dribble.
Tim Hardaway Jr. is still too easy to pickpocket when he puts the ball on the floor inside the arc; last night, you could see him overcompensate by trying to shield the ball with his entire body, which led to some ugly twisting layup attempts in traffic. He's much better when he can drive to the free-throw line and pull up, but opponents have learned to take that part of the court away.
Robinson, for all his athleticism, still hasn't proven himself a threat off the dribble. Nik Stauskas could be that guy, especially with his skill in pick-and-roll situations, but the last four games he's been invisible when his outside shot isn't falling. Caris LeVert isn't strong enough to get all the way to the hoop, forcing him to try an array of pull-up jumpers that aren't falling with any consistency.
The pieces all fit together when Burke is on the floor. When he's not, this team is disjointed and surprisingly easy to defend—take away Hardaway's drive to the middle, don't sag off of Stauskas, and let them miss tough shots.
THE SILVER LINING
Even the most optimistic of Wolverine partisans would've been at least grudgingly accepting of a 2-2 record over the last four games, especially with Morgan hobbled. Despite all of the above, Michigan came within a half-court shot of just that. The last four games also don't discount what happened in the first 21; let there be no mistake, this is still a team that can get hot at the right time and win a six-game single-elimination tournament (yes, that one). Is that likely? Well, probably not. Is it within reason? Sure, if the matchups fall their way.
In fact, this team can still grab a share of the Big Ten title. In a conference that is cannibalizing itself, the Wolverines have one of the easier closing slates—including playing Penn State twice in the next three games—before the season finale against Indiana. If Michigan beats the teams they should beat, they may find themselves in control of their own destiny at the very end after all.
Also, this team still has Trey Burke, who still very much deserves his status as a national player of the year contender. He is still a joy to watch, and this is almost certainly the last time he'll be in a Michigan uniform. I, for one, am going to do everything in my power to sit back and enjoy the privilege of seeing him play.