Is it 2007? With the way Michigan has fared in its last two games, falling at home first to the New Jersey Institute of Technology on Saturday and then to Eastern Michigan on Tuesday night, it might as well be.
Head coach John Beilein took over Michigan in ‘07 and went 10-22 in his first season. The Wolverines finished ninth in the Big Ten. They averaged 62.7 points per game. And even that team beat Eastern Michigan, 61-53.
All of this is to say: What is going on in Ann Arbor?
This is a young Wolverines squad, with juniors Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert the only upperclassmen who see legitimate minutes, but so were Beilein’s previous two teams. In 2013, Michigan went to the National Final. Last year, they were an Aaron Harrison three-pointer away from the Final Four. How has so much changed in so little time?
After the 45-42 setback on Tuesday, Michigan has now lost back-to-back non-conference home games for the first time since that 2007-08 season, when they fell to Central Michigan and No. 8 UCLA. And it’s not the losses themselves that are so defeating for a Wolverines program that over the last few seasons has reemerged into the national spotlight for the first time since the Fab Five left.
It’s how they’re losing.
The last two outings, Michigan has shied away from its roots and failed to execute when it matters.
John Beilein-coached teams are known for two things: three-point shooting and sound, foul-free defense. Over the last two games, neither has been in sync. The Wolverines shot an impressive 45.8 percent from long distance against NJIT, but they allowed the Highlanders to record an unthinkable 64.7 percent clip (11-for-17 from deep) in a Big Ten arena that has been nearly impossible to win in recently. Against Eastern, the Wolverines held the Eagles to a measly 45 points on 32.6 percent field goal shooting, but only delivered 42 points on an abysmal 4-of-19 night from behind the arc.
Coming in to the season, many expected sophomore small forward Zak Irvin to make the jump to the next level as a consistent offensive threat. With the departures of Glenn Robinson III and Big Ten Player of the Year Nik Stauskas, the starting role and shot opportunities were there for the taking.
Irvin has been shooting, but lately he’s also been missing. He’s a combined 5-for-23 in the last two games, and the Wolverines have struggled heavily without his production. LeVert has been playing like an NBA draft prospect, but it’s become quite evident he cannot carry the load entirely on his own, even against weaker competition.
It’s not time to hit the panic button in Ann Arbor just yet. This is still a tremendously talented team with one of the nation’s winningest coaches at the helm, and they still have a couple weeks to figure it out before the start of a grueling Big Ten slate. But the Wolverines have not done themselves any favors, nor have they shown signs in the last 80 minutes they're capable of picking themselves up anytime soon.
If Michigan struggles through the conference season and are a bubble team come March, the NJIT and Eastern Michigan losses will reappear.
The committee won’t forget.
Maybe at the end of the season, these games will be inconsequential. They will be an afterthought to an otherwise successful campaign; a failure to get up for small, unimposing opponents. Perhaps then, Michigan’s next game, against undefeated and No. 3 Arizona at the McKale Center in Tucson on Saturday, will defibrillate the Wolverines.
If not, then this whole season just may become an afterthought.