Undermanned Wolverines facing uphill climb to make NCAAs
ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) When the clock expired at the end of Michigan's overtime loss to Wisconsin over the weekend, a significant portion of the crowd at Crisler Center began applauding.
After everything the Wolverines have accomplished over the last couple seasons, moral victories are certainly not the goal in Ann Arbor. But with Caris LeVert now out for the season, Michigan fans may have little choice but to lower their expectations.
For the defending Big Ten champions, just making the NCAA tournament is looking like quite a challenge.
''We are learning about competing, and we want to get better at it,'' coach John Beilein said after Saturday's 69-64 loss to the Badgers. ''It is still not where it is going to be, but today was a very positive step in the right direction.''
Even before LeVert went down, Michigan (12-8, 5-3 Big Ten) was having a rough season. After losing underclassmen Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary to the NBA off last season's team, the Wolverines looked ordinary offensively. A December loss to the New Jersey Institute of Technology made headlines, but that was only the beginning.
Michigan also lost to Eastern Michigan last month, and a blowout loss at Ohio State on Jan. 13 made it clear how far behind the Wolverines had fallen in relation to the top teams in the Big Ten. But after LeVert, the team's top scorer, was sidelined with a foot injury, it was almost as if some of the pressure was lifted.
Playing lineup combinations that were difficult to believe, Michigan went on the road and beat Rutgers, then pushed Wisconsin to the limit.
''We feel we can compete with anybody,'' point guard Derrick Walton said. ''Most of all, I'm just proud of the younger guys being able to showcase what they can do with the opportunity they're getting.''
Aubrey Dawkins made his first start against Rutgers and scored 11 points, and fellow freshman Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman has scored 22 points over the last three games - he had just 10 all season before that.
A trio of big men - Ricky Doyle, Mark Donnal and Max Bielfeldt - held its own against Wisconsin 7-footer Frank Kaminsky. But they can provide only so much offensively. Walton and swingman Irvin were expected to lead the team along with LeVert, but their shooting percentages have dipped since last season.
Walton and Irvin combined for 29 points against Wisconsin, including Walton's 3-pointer in the final seconds that forced overtime. But they also finished 9 of 27 from the field.
''I'm just going to keep working hard, and hopefully when my shot comes back, that will be a big factor for us going forward,'' Irvin said.
After reaching the national title game in 2013 and the round of eight last year, Michigan will need to finish strong to reach the 2015 NCAA tournament. At this point, the Wolverines have no wins that can offset the ugly losses to NJIT and EMU. A victory over Wisconsin obviously would have helped, but as of Monday morning, Michigan was ranked 73rd in the RPI, according to rpiforecast.com.
All five of Michigan's conference victories have been by single digits, so Tuesday's game against Nebraska (12-7, 4-3) figures to be another tough one even though the Wolverines are playing at home.
Michigan has fought gamely so far in conference play, but the margin for error seems slim every time the Wolverines take the court.
''We are a tough, gritty team, and we believe no matter who goes down, we're going to rally together around our principles,'' Bielfeldt said. ''It's worked for so long, we just kind of stick to it and keep playing together.''