On The Ropes
Michigan's basketball season could be on life support after yet another loss, and this one might be the most painful one yet.
You can talk about Juwan Howard's odd defensive philosophy that continues letting each opponents' top scoring option go off and beat you. Almost every game someone seems to get a season or career-high against Michigan.
You can talk about the lapses that have Michigan the worst defensive team in conference games. A shell of the dominant defensive squad they were the final two years under John Beilein.
And you can talk about Isaiah Livers, the best scorer in the program, re-aggravating his groin injury in his first game back in five weeks. Prompting the question if this will become a lost season for him as he hobbled off the court.
All those things would be legitimate concerns, but they're not the fundamental reason why a basketball season that began so promising now could be mortally wounded.
Because it all really comes down to this: basketball is a simple game if you can make shots, or if you can't.
If you can put the ball in the hoop with great precision, you can be Steve Alford. More than 30 years since his career at Indiana ended, he remains one of the top five all-time scorers in Big Ten basketball history, despite being a fairly mediocre athlete by upper tier Division I standards. Or you can win Big Ten titles with leaders like Stu Douglass and Zack Novak, who had no shot at ever playing in the NBA.
But if you can't put the ball in the basket, you're not going to be very good at basketball, even if you look and dunk like a national Cross Fit champion. That would unfortunately be these Wolverines.
They puckered five straight free throws down the stretch that could've potentially iced the game against Illinois, shot sub-40% for the game, and sub-30% from three. Hence a game they played so damned hard to win they lost instead, which is becoming a hard (and nasty) habit for Michigan to break. And when you play in a Big Ten that entered the weekend with over 80% of its teams in the top 40 of KenPom's analytics, there's not a lot of get-well games on the schedule.
The downward spiral seems officially on.
The brick-laying convention has lasted for weeks now, and no one is immune. At this point Jon Teske scoring at the rim is about as likely as Eli Brooks -- or anyone else for that matter -- making a three. So many of these shots have rimmed in and out, you're tempted to say sooner or later the randomness of basketball will swing back Michigan's way. However, as those ruts become stretches, and those stretches become the entire month of January, sooner or later we may have to accept our favorite team just isn't that good. Or, at the very least, their confidence is so shaken they're thinking it.
It's also a mystery who Michigan turns to for answers. The experienced players in that locker room haven't faced something like this in their careers. For example, Michigan had won 43 of its last 46 home games before losing these last two. So they're used to Michigan being considered among the top programs in the nation, which means they're pretty much as lost as the newcomers. Then there's a rookie head coach, who is getting on-the-job training in real time alongside a bunch of players he didn't recruit. Translation: there's no real foundation there to go back to and start over with.
This is the wrong season in the wrong league to try and find yourself on the go. At this point, Michigan basketball's priority is holding on to that top five recruiting class, because you know veteran opposing coaches are going to be calling those guys and saying, "I told you so." And if this team does somehow turn it around between now and March, that's just gravy.
Otherwise, if you're a Michigan fan looking for hope after another mediocre football season might I suggest hockey, which is surging at the moment? Or, opening day for the preseason top 10 Michigan baseball team is only 20 days away. Of course, Selection Sunday is 50 days from now, but we can't take that for granted by any means.