As he walked away from the podium Sunday evening, Michigan head coach John Beilein looked over a sea of reporters and firmly said: “Michigan will get better.” There was a point during the Wolverines 77-70 loss to Michigan State where it looked like perhaps the maize and blue had done enough to get a win against Michigan State. Instead, ice cold shooting and an all-time performance from Spartan junior Cassius Winston (27 points, 8 assists) sealed the Wolverines fate despite a last-ditch attempt at a comeback with three late three-pointers from Zavier Simpson and Jordan Poole.
No. 9 Michigan sits one game back of No. 6 Michigan State and No. 14 Purdue in the race for the Big Ten and three wins against Nebraska, No. 17 Maryland and Michigan State could be enough to get the Wolverines a share of the conference title. Purdue’s final four games are against four of the conference’s bottom eight teams, but the Boilermakers have looked everything but steady as of late, so it is no guarantee they win out.
Beilein pointed to a myriad of things the Wolverines will try to fix in the next two weeks before facing Michigan State again on March 9 in the regular season finale. In this story, we’ll go through some of the troubles Beilein spoke of and a few things I noticed Sunday that did not work for Michigan and perhaps could use some tweaking.
- Michigan’s Ball Screen Defense/Defensive Switching
“He destroyed our ball-screen defense, destroyed it,” said John Beilein, praising Michigan State guard Cassius Winston’s effort against Michigan. Tom Izzo’s game plan offensively was near perfect in its ability to cut through Michigan’s defense. In the second half, Michigan’s bigs stayed on the ball too often, surrendering layups and inside shots to MSU. The Spartans finished the day 15/18 on shots inside the paint. “He just gets into these little areas, and then he’s got this floater game that very few players have. He is one of the best I have ever seen” Beilein continued on Winston. “If you impact him more with your ball screen coverage, you take that away, for some reason our impact wasn’t there, or he got by our impact with hesitation.” Beilein did cite that he believed post game that Cassius Winston was the biggest reason Michigan’s ball-screen d faltered. The other issue with the defense was staying on-ball too long slowed down defensive switching. There was more than one occasion in the first half where an MSU shooter would get the ball for a three-point attempt, and no Michigan defender was close enough to contest the shot. One example in the first half involved Jordan Poole attempting to switch onto Matt McQuaid but Poole bit too hard on the pump fake and allowed an uncontested three to splash in. Michigan State did not hit a three in the second half (0 for 8) but those drives inside and 21 attempts at the free throw line (14 of which came inside the final three minutes) sealed up the Spartan win.
- Michigan Being Forced to ISO on Offense
Michigan finished the game Sunday with six assists. Its lowest total of the season and lowest since only recording seven in a 59-57 win over Minnesota at home in January. The Spartans forced the Wolverines away from their usual offense using plenty of switching on ball screens and Michigan could not capitalize.
“That’s amazing, I thought our turnovers was the part that was most amazing,” replied Izzo when he learned Michigan only had six assists. “We did some things that made them drive; they did a good job of driving too.” “I think more we put them in positions to drive and you don’t get as many assists that way I guess.”
The Spartans were happy in daring the Wolverines to shoot, and that defensive style paid dividends for MSU when Michigan’s shooting froze in the second half, shooting 1 for 10 from the floor between 12:18 and 5:31 in the second half. That cold spell decided the game for the most part. “Tom has never done a lot of switching of ball screens or lifting of ball screens like they did. They are a traditional flat hedge team, and they didn’t do any of that today. It threw us off a little bit in our timing,” Beilein said. The coach also pointed out that Michigan State’s switching of screens forced Michigan into playing one-on-one.
Contrary to Michigan State’s 15/18 performance inside the paint, Michigan shot only 15/28 (53%) inside the paint. Not being able to convert gimme’s hurts, but there was more than one occasion where Simpson or Poole attempted to drive inside for a layup with two or three Spartans defending them. Not kicking out on those heavily contested looks is a desperation play and something that was leaned on a few times too many. There was also a stunning lack of Jon Teske inside. The junior scored seven of his 10 points in the first 4:45 of the game and attempted no three-pointers on the day. In the Spartans barrage of switches, there were times where Teske was matched up with Winston, a matchup that a big as dynamic as Teske would have success against, and Teske did not see the ball. The junior did not score again from the floor until there was 5:31 left in the game and he helped cut the MSU lead to 62-57. Aside from a late Jordan Poole 3PT to cut the lead to four in the final minute, that Teske bucket was the closest Michigan got to MSU.
- Lack of Bench Contributions
For a team as young as Michigan is, it’s not overly surprising that depth has been a struggle all season long. That issue has become more glaring over the last eight games. Dating back to Michigan’s win over Ohio State, the Wolverines have 61 total points off the bench. 53 of them have been scored by sophomore Isaiah Livers. On Sunday, Livers was Michigan’s only scorer off the bench with six points. It marked the fourth time in those eight games that Livers was the only player who did score off the bench. Michigan has been very lucky to have no major injuries this year but when a rotation boils down to six players, it will lead to struggles against deeper teams. We’ve seen glimpses of potential from freshmen David DeJulius and Colin Castleton in limited spells on the court, but neither of them is ready to be a major contributor. Brandon Johns shined against Indiana in January but has only been used sparingly since. Beilein preaches that the freshmen are being brought along slowly, but they may need to grow up fast in the next two weeks if Michigan hopes to have success in the postseason as it has the past two years.
There is no doubt that a home loss to the program’s biggest rival, while 200 alumni including the lone national championship team were in the house, will sting a bit. The Wolverines are using Monday as an off day from practice before returning to the floor to prep for Nebraska on Thursday. The game against the Cornhuskers should provide Beilein and his team a chance to recalibrate and close out Crisler for the year on a high note before playing two top 20 teams to end the year in Maryland and Michigan State. Momentum late in the regular season has been a key factor for Michigan in its run to two Big Ten Tournament championships, a Sweet 16 and a national championship game appearance over the last two years. There are three opportunities to seize that momentum left, and the Wolverines will definitley learn from Sunday’s result as they continue down the stretch.