Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Michigan 58, SMU 82: If you're gonna play in Texas, you gotta have defenders in the band

Michigan struggled against top-notch competition in Xavier and UConn, looking generally over-matched and like a team still trying to find its way, as individuals and a cohesive unit.

The same held true tonight in Dallas, as SMU's Jordan Tolbert dunked his way to 23 points (11-of-12 from the field) and Michigan (6-3) did very little right, falling 82-58 and never leading in the game's final 33 minutes.

The Wolverines not only had a chance to avenge last season's home loss against the Mustangs, they had an opportunity to tally a quality win (on the road, no less), which could have come in handy come tournament selection time -- but, first things first.

Unfortunately, Michigan was without the services of Derrick Walton (Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman got the start in his place). MAAR contributed to a solid early effort, with a 3-of-3 start from the field, mitigating a slow start from Caris LeVert.

Michigan gained an 11-7 lead, but that was about as good as things would get. The U-M offense was out of sync, and aside from a 1-of-8 start from beyond the arc, the Wolverines committed a pair of shot clock violations, in addition to other bad shots to end possessions.

Michigan fell behind, fast, as the Mustangs found open shooters on the secondary break and Michigan continued to stumble on the offensive end. Speaking of, Michigan didn't get its first big-man points until a wide open Ricky Doyle dunk with three minutes remaining in the first half.

From the outside, Michigan finished the first half shooting just 33 percent (14% from beyond the arc) -- not surprisingly, Michigan trailed 36-22, with SMU closing on a 15-4 run.

Michigan's inability to prevent penetration by opposing guards continues to kill it on a consistent basis -- that's hard enough to withstand even if you have an elite shot blocker (which Michigan does not have).

Without one? You get what you saw tonight: alley-oop slams, transition rim-rattlers, thunderous tomahawks, powerful putbacks.

Michigan heated up early in the second half, including a pair of Duncan Robinson triples and a Zak Irvin three off the glass from the top of the key. Even so, Michigan still couldn't shadow Tolbert, who dunked his way to one of the easiest 23-point nights I've ever seen.

Despite Michigan's early second-half signs of life, LeVert remained scoreless 26 minutes into the game -- until some Keith Frazier trash talking netted LeVert a pair of technical foul free throws. (LeVert's first field goal came with under five minutes to play, when the game was already well out of reach.)

Robinson buried another triple, and Michigan was down 12. To the 1-3-1 they went, and to the slam dunk store SMU went, on that possession and the next. Every time Michigan made a bucket, SMU responded, often emphatically.

There's not much to say and no use in over-analyzing. LeVert struggled mightily for the second year in a row against SMU and the Wolverines had no answers defensively. Part of it is experience, part of it is a lack of physicality, and part of it is simply not doing the basketball things that need to be done. There are some things a Beilein team will never be or never do -- but, for example, being able to stay in front of guards has to be one of those things.

Walton would have greatly helped, to be sure, although not enough to get Michigan a win tonight. His ability to lead and drive the team is obvious when he's on the floor, and especially so when he's not.

One would think the Wolverines will improve somewhat between now and February. As it stands, though, Michigan will exit the nonconference schedule without a win to hang its hat on. The Big Ten schedule is far more forgiving than it has been in recent years, but even a tournament berth can't be taken for granted.

SMU is a strong team, and there is certainly no shame in losing to a team like that, on the road. But, if Michigan is to avoid missing out on the Big Dance for the second year in a row, it has to fix some very basic deficiencies in its play to date, and fast.

In-season improvement is almost a guarantee, but who knows if it'll be enough come tournament time. After Michigan reached the national title one year and the Elite 8 the next, last season and the start to this one are a little tougher to watch than they otherwise might be.

That's college basketball for you, talent pools ebbing and flowing like the tides, with them taking and returning fortune.

Michigan still has plenty of talent, and this is a team that can make a little noise in the tournament if it gets there.

But there's a long, long way to go.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Michigan 66, N.C. State 59: The good, the bad and the wunderbar

Michigan led by as many as 10 points in the first half on the road in Raleigh, led by Caris LeVert's nine points and five rebounds. Heading into the break, the Wolverines led 34-26.

This all sounds good: but there was one catch.

Despite all of the above, the story of the first 20 minutes was Derrick Walton, who limped off the floor late in the half with an ankle injury.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, somewhat of an odd-man-out thus far, picked up many of those minutes, finishing with four points, four rebounds and a steal.

Of course, a Walton-less Michigan team is not a new thing for John Beilein and Co., so the second half was not quite the shock to the system it otherwise could have been.

And Michigan played the second frame like it had been in that situation before.

Michigan upped its lead to 15 in the second half after a LeVert dunk. The Wolfpack, however, surged back, cutting the lead down to four after slowly chipping away at the deficit for six minutes.

In what sounded like a tough road environment (on TV, at least), Michigan could have wilted under the pressure. Instead, they responded, and from the exact spots on the floor you'd expect them to do so.

Duncan Robinson shimmied and rose up for a right-wing triple, which he buried and then stared at the Michigan bench, a moment eerily reminiscent of one Nik Stauskas.

On the next possession, LeVert drove right and swung a baseline pass to an open Zak Irvin in the corner. Irvin is still recalibrating his shot, but on this one he was true, extending Michigan's lead to 10.

The home team never cut the deficit to less than seven after that critical one-two.

Without Walton, ball-handling duties fell on LeVert for much of the second half, in which he attempted only four shots. On a number of occasions, he did that thing where he penetrates deep into the lane, and instead of going up for his own shot, attempts a pass to a Michigan big, which seems to result in a turnover or some other negative outcome more often than not.

Nonetheless, LeVert's free-throw shooting late helped seal the deal, and he finished with 18 to lead the Wolverines. Robinson was close behind, with 17 points on 6-for-8 shooting (5-for-7 from three).

On the boards, Michigan out-rebounded N.C. State, 30-23, but once again had trouble on the defensive glass. The Wolfpack rebounded 34 percent of their misses -- the last game I recapped (Elon), Michigan allowed its opponent to grab 33 percent of its misses. Regardless, struggles on the defensive glass are nothing new for this program. It is what it is.

Otherwise, the most important storyline will continue to be what Michigan can get out of its frontcourters. Ricky Doyle continues to suffer from a bit of fumbleitis around the basket, but that's to be expected from a great majority of big guys. Doyle had a team-high three turnovers, but did pitch in six points and four rebounds, and took a charge late.

The freshman from Berlin, however, is the frontcourter likely to inspire the most buzz.

Moritz Wagner scored two points on 1-for-5 shooting in a combined nine minutes against Xavier and UConn, both brutal losses for the Wolverines.

Since then? He's logged 16, 18 and 23 minutes in Michigan's current three-game winning streak, scoring a combined 34 points on 15-for-19 shooting. Tonight, he tallied eight points on 4-for-7 shooting. Fouls could be an issue going forward (he tallied four tonight and four against Texas), but otherwise the nimble big man is doing some good things out there, including a solid finish through contact on a feed from LeVert with just over four minutes left and an emphatic first-half dunk.

Who knows if this will fall in the quality win ledger. N.C. State opened its season with a blowout loss against William & Mary of the Colonial Athletic Association and dropped a close one to Arizona State in New York.

Regardless, a road win against a major conference team is nothing to scoff at, particularly without the team's floor general for the second half.

The Wolfpack shot just 32.8 percent from the field and 23.5 percent from beyond the arc. Anthony Barber and Caleb Martin got their points (a combined 35), but the remainder of the starting five went a horrid 1-for-20 from the field. It's difficult to say how much of this had to do with Michigan and how much could be attributed to N.C. State simply taking bad shots, but the numbers are the numbers.

In any case, Michigan has rebounded nicely after a pair of tough losses against strong competition. The team is a work in progress, as Beilein continues to try to find the right lineups, Irvin continues to regain his feel for the game and the young bigs make incremental improvements.

But, all in all, after those two losses, things have gone just about as well as you could hope for.

The Wolverines take on Houston Baptist on Saturday before another quality opponent appears on the schedule next Tuesday, when Michigan heads to currently No. 22 SMU. After last year's home loss against the Mustangs, the Wolverines will surely be looking for a different result this time around.

Michigan follows that up with a series of lesser foes -- but after last year's NJIT game, no contest can be considered a slam dunk -- before Big Ten play opens for Michigan at Illinois Dec. 30.