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.

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