Michigan got back in the win column Sunday with a less-than-inspiring 79-71 victory over Penn State. But while the victory may have temporarily stopped the bleeding resulting from Michigan's recent 1-3 stretch, it fell far short of healing Michigan's wounds, particularly those inflicted during its humiliating loss to Michigan State last Tuesday.
Last week's blowout in East Lansing can partially be explained by a raucous crowd and a proud Spartan team that was silently fuming that its hated rival had spent much of the season as the nation's media darlings, the recipients of much adoration and high rankings. Not surprisingly, Michigan State responded with what Tom Izzo called his team's best performance in three years. But that doesn't tell the entire story. Michigan State not only reduced Michigan to a one-man team, as Trey Burke often seemed to be the only Wolverine capable of competing with the Spartans, but also suggested that Michigan performs well when not truly challenged, but when pushed, with the exception of Burke, is not likely to push back. And these aren't the sentiments of a neutral observer or an impassioned fan, but the words of Michigan's Tim Hardaway Jr. who conceded after the game that Michigan was bullied by the Spartans. Hardaway didn't follow up with, but didn't have to, that Michigan didn't respond in kind.
Yet despite its recent struggles, and despite what happened Tuesday in East Lansing, all is not lost for the Wolverines. Michigan can still bounce back and ultimately have the season that it hoped to have. To do so, however, the Wolverines have to prove that this team is closer to the one it appeared to be in the first half of the season than the one it's been the past few weeks. So it is that a team with the number one ranking in its sights two weeks ago now finds itself in need of retooling on both ends of the court.
As it rolled through its non-conference and early conference schedule, Michigan appeared to be different from Michigan teams of the past. More than simply Burke and Hardaway, Michigan looked as if it finally had the complementary pieces necessary for a deep tournament run. But while that certainly seemed to be the case early on, as Nik Stauskas was knocking down threes at a greater than 50% clip and Glenn Robinson III was scoring in all manners, it hasn't been the case of late, as the heralded freshman trio of Stauskas, Robinson and Mitch McGary have played like, well, freshmen. If Michigan hopes to right the ship, it's going to need to find help for Burke, and that starts with getting more production from its freshmen, particularly Stauskas and Robinson.
Despite a scoring average that would lead one to think otherwise, the Wolverines have yet to truly incorporate Stauskas into their offense, particularly in the half-court game. Much of Stauskas's scoring has come in transition or against overwhelmed opponents. In games in which Michigan has faced quality opponents and has had to live off its half-court offense, open looks have been few and far between for Stauskas. In road games against Ohio State, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan State, Stauskas connected on a total of four three-pointers while shooting less than 25% from beyond the arc. But Stauskas's diminished production pales in comparison to that of Robinson. Once an efficient scorer and stat sheet stuffer, Robinson has all but disappeared. While he did match a career high with 21 points against the Nittany Lions Sunday, prior to that Robinson scored two, four and two points in Michigan's losses at Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan State, respectively.
Michigan needs to get its freshmen back in the flow, but that may not be easy. The common thought was that playing in hostile environments at Ohio State, Indiana and Wisconsin would help toughen the young Wolverines. Yet against Michigan State, every Wolverine not named Trey Burke appeared as if he had never played in a big time atmosphere before. If the first three losses did nothing to strengthen Michigan's resolve, why should the last? That may be John Beilein's toughest task, getting the Wolverines emotionally back on track and ready for a late season push. And with future opponents Michigan State and Indiana peaking, that task becomes even more difficult.
But Michigan needs to do more than find offensive support for Burke. Stauskas and Robinson returned to their early season form against the Nittany Lions, combining for 39 points, yet Michigan was still unable to shake the winless (in conference play) Nittany Lions for most of the game. Team defense, once a question for the Wolverines, is a question no more. It's no secret that Michigan lacks overall size and that its interior defense is perhaps its greatest weakness, but Penn State took advantage of more than just mismatches in the paint. Penn State continually exploited Michigan on pick-and-rolls and its guards repeatedly beat Michigan defenders off the dribble. Sophomore D.J. Newbill, in particular, had little trouble getting to the basket. Beilein noted that Michigan has focused more on its defense since the Michigan State loss, but based on Sunday's performance against Penn State, there's still work to be done.
Most importantly, however, Michigan has to display an increased toughness. Tom Izzo has always preached toughness and his teams have always been tough. That is a trait that this Michigan team has yet to show. Tuesday night in East Lansing surely won't be the last time that someone tries to bully Michigan this season. What will define this season, and this team, is the next time that happens, will the Wolverines fight back?