It’s been a strange season for Michigan. The Wolverines were quick out of the blocks, and rode impressive, double-digit victories over defending national champion Villanova, North Carolina and Purdue to a season-opening, 17-game winning streak. The 17-0 record marked the best start in program history, but since that start, Michigan has struggled. Heading into Sunday’s game against Michigan State, the Wolverines were just 7-3 over their last ten games. With the Spartans coming to Ann Arbor for the first half of a late season, home-and-home series, and with the regular season conference championship at stake, Michigan had a chance to right the ship, so to speak.
In front of a raucous home crown, the first twenty minutes of Sunday’s top-ten showdown went about as expected: A closely contested affair with 12 lead changes. Michigan State was led, as it has been all season, by junior point guard Cassius Winston. Winston continued his player-of-the-year-level play, scoring eight points and repeatedly finding teammates for open looks, none more so that Kenny Goins, who finished the half with 14 points, including three-of-four from deep range. Michigan remained close, led by Zavier Simpson, who ended the half with ten points, including two threes of his own. The teams went to the locker room separated by a mere basket, and there was little reason to expect the second half wouldn’t feature more of the same.
Michigan came out of the locker room as if it had something to prove, opening the half with a 14-7 run that gave the Wolverines a five-point lead just inside the 16-minute mark. After a strong, baseline dunk by freshman Ignas Brazdeikis, the Wolverines appeared to be on the precipice of taking control of the game.
But appearances can sometimes be deceiving. Michigan State gathered itself and responded with a 25-9 run of its own to wrest control of the game. If Winston played well in the first half, he played spectacularly in the second half. And with Winston in control, the Spartans never seemed in trouble. Michigan exactly didn’t go away, but it also never seriously challenged the Spartans over the final ten minutes, and despite a total of 16 lead changes, Michigan State looked like the better team the majority of the afternoon.
The Michigan State offense runs through Winston, and Winston runs through screens. A lot of them. Sometimes two or three per possession. Michigan curiously chose to double-team those screens (or hedge them, if you prefer), often in the form of center Jon Teske, which led to numerous uncontested layups and dunks. The misguided strategy, which often left Teske 20-plus feet away from the rim, and Winston’s ability to find the open man out of those double-teams, led to 30 points in the paint for the Spartans and played a large part in deciding Sunday’s outcome. But so did Michigan’s performance on the offensive end of the floor.
In one respect, it was surprising to see Michigan lose at home to an undermanned and underdog Spartan squad. However, if you’ve been following Michigan this season, the Wolverines’ performance shouldn’t have been surprising at all. Michigan has struggled all season offensively, particularly so as of late, and those struggles continued Sunday. Brazdeikis acquitted himself well enough, scoring 16 points to go with nine rebounds, but Michigan’s other top scorers, Jordan Poole and Charles Matthews, struggled mightily, each missing seven of his first eight shots. The pair finished a combined six for 21, a statistic buoyed by two, too-little, too-late three-pointers in the game’s final minute, and were never a factor.
What is the adage, if you play with fire you’ll eventually get burned? Well, Michigan had been playing with fire the better part of the last two months, with ugly stretches and ugly box scores. Their defense usually allowed them to prevail regardless, but Sunday, the Wolverines finally got burned.
The loss leaves Michigan at a bit of a crossroads. Not just because it ends any realistic chance of winning the regular season conference championship, but because Michigan still lacks offensive consistency. Outside of Simpson and Teske, who almost always play well - and did so again Sunday against the Spartans - Michigan’s other players, particularly its scorers, are plagued by inconsistency. For Michigan to replicate its runs in last season’s Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, the Wolverines will have to get more consistent offensive play from its key offensive performers. If not, there will likely be more games - and more outcomes - like Sunday’s in the Wolverines future.
Or in plainer terms, for Michigan to finish strong, it needs to get its mojo back.
Special thanks to Keith Wilkey and his uncanny ability to synopsize.