If you wanted to concoct the most painful possible basketball game to watch, at least when it comes to mid-January non-conference road games, Saturday's 66-64 heartbreaker at Arkansas was about as bad as it gets from a fan perspective. We saw:
- The end of the Kentucky game go long, causing most fans—including myself—to miss at least the first few minutes of the game.
- Arkansas hit their first 11 shots from the field en route to opening up a 20-point lead.
- Michigan turn the ball over five times in the first ten minutes as they looked entirely unprepared to handle the Razorbacks's "40 Minutes of Hell" full-court press.
- The Wolverines embark on a lengthy comeback run, only Arkansas kept Michigan at arms-length until Zack Novak cut the deficit to two points with just 3:48 left.
- A four-minute stretch during that span in which neither team scored a point.
- Zack Novak almost kill a guy.
- Trey Burke's final shot go halfway down then cruelly bounce out as the buzzer sounded.
That was not fun. At all. The most joy I got from that game was watching Novak stick it to the Arkansas crowd by sinking clutch three after clutch three, only I felt guilty doing so because I'm pretty sure Novak should've been ejected. Yes, he made an effort to block the shot, but nailing an airborne player in the head with your forearm while running at full speed is pretty damn dangerous.
That's besides the point, though. The point is that Michigan could never quite put it all together, dropping a very winnable game and leaving the Wolverines still lacking a true road win this season. If M lands on the bubble come tournament time, this is going to be the "what if?" game that could come back to haunt them.
The key was that press, spearheaded by a deep Arkansas rotation that kept fresh legs on the floor while Michigan's fairly-thin core group of players tried to keep pace. The Wolverines looked blindsided by the press early on, and instead of slowing the game down and playing at their tempo, they sped up. I don't have video of the opening minutes, but the sequence that led to Novak's flagrant foul is pretty indicative:
I'm pretty sure that play violated Rush the Court's first three rules for breaking the Arkansas press. Even when Michigan was able to get through, settling down into their half-court offense was another issue entirely.
Other than Jordan Morgan, who scored 16 points on 7-11 shooting and had eight straight to key Michigan's second-half surge, no Wolverine had an all-around solid game statistically. Trey Burke dished out six assists to just two turnovers and grabbed seven (!) rebounds, but his 13 points came on 6-19 shooting and he was just 1-6 from deep. Novak led the team with 17 points and connected on 5-7 three-pointers, but he turned the ball over four times and struggled to keep pace defensively. Nobody else cracked double-digits in the scoring column, and it took the still-slumping Tim Hardaway Jr. eight shots to score nine points.
Michigan will look to move on from this game quickly, but the remaining stretch is brutal. The Wolverines head to Purdue tomorrow night (KenPom: 35% win probability), then play at Ohio State (5%), at home vs. Indiana (43%), and at Michigan State (13%) over the next two weeks. In fact, going by KenPom, the Wolverines are projected to win just four of their remaining 11 games. While that would give the team a 20-11 record (10-8 B1G), almost assuredly locking up a spot in the tournament, the team could be looking at another uphill battle to even reach the second day, let alone the Sweet Sixteen.
While that would still satisfy expectations, we all know from experience that life on the bubble is a stressful existence. With Hardaway struggling, Smotrycz disappearing, and the team leaning heavily on a freshman point guard, something is going to have to change—and soon—if Michigan wants to avoid a late-season swoon. I trust John Beilein to make the necessary adjustments, but once again, the burden will be placed on a group of mostly-inexperienced players to pull through.
And yet, Michigan remains tied atop the Big Ten standings. Please don't ask me to explain what's going on this year. It's probably best to strap yourself in, because it's going to be one hell of a ride from this point forward.