The Wolverines have problems. Not the type of problems that can be cured by rest, or coaching or practice, but the type of problems that you can’t teach.
They don’t have size. And in basketball, that’s a massive problem.
The Spartans, who crushed the Wolverines 75-52 on Tuesday night, fed Derrick Nix in the post like it was Taco Tuesday. Nix (6’9’’) abused Michigan’s frontcourt with a surprisingly deft touch around the rim, scoring 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting.
And the Wolverines didn’t have an answer. Regular starter Jordan Morgan came into the game hampered by an ankle injury and was relegated to nine minutes and two rebounds.
Even when healthy though, Morgan is undersized at 6’8’’ and isn’t particularly mobile on defense. His 5.8 points per game aren’t scaring anybody, either.
6'10" forward Mitch McGary, fresh off his second career Big Ten Player of the Week honors, earned his first career start, and it showed. McGary had been on a tear with three straight games of at least 10 points and six rebounds. Tuesday he finished with four and four and frankly, he looked overwhelmed by the spotlight.
Following the game, Coach Beilein discussed his team's issues inside (at the :13 second mark).
The Wolverines can’t sustain a deep tournament run against teams like Duke, Miami and Gonzaga because, using the blueprint that the Spartans laid, those teams would dismantle Michigan’s interior. In fact, most teams would try to exploit the Wolverines in the paint, given their rangy defenders on the outside.
On offense, the Wolverines are predominantly a jump-shooting team. That could be risky come tournament time when even Michigan's best shooters could get rattled, leaving it without any scoring options.
Lack of Balance
The deeper problem with the Wolverines is that they’ve been able to conceal their frontcourt depth issues with outstanding outside shooting. When Nik Stauskas, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke are connecting from the perimeter, why feed the ball into the post where the Wolverines have been less efficient?
The Wolverines earn just under a third of their points from beyond the arc, the third-highest ratio in the Big Ten, according to KenPom.com. They also score just 14.2 percent of their points from the free-throw line, the lowest percentage in the country. It couldn’t be more obvious where the Wolverines are susceptible.
Watch as the Spartans' defense completely took the Wolverines out of their offense by extending their defense to the perimeter, knowing Michigan couldn't beat them in the post.
The problem is in the last two games, both losses, their outside shooting has been off and they haven’t had a consistent interior threat to rely on. Michigan has shot just 11-of-37 from the three-point line (29 percent), a stark contrast to the 40 percent they’d been knocking down throughout the season.
Compare Michigan to the other top teams in the Big Ten; Indiana and, obviously, the Spartans. Both of those teams consistently seek paint touches, which forces the defense to collapse, thus opening up the outside shot.
Both those teams funnel their offense through the post, which Michigan struggles to do.
Michigan doesn’t have the horses inside. We’ve covered that. But when faced with a lack of size, the onus is on the rest of the team to follow shots, crash the glass and limit second-chance opportunities.
That falls on players like Glenn Robinson III, who has been noticeably absent the past four games, Hardaway Jr. and yes, even Burke.
In the losses to Ohio State and Michigan State, the opponents' guards tallied the most amount of rebounds in each game. When the Wolverines faced the Buckeyes, Lenzelle Smith Jr. finished with 10 boards, significantly more than any of Ohio State’s big men. Against the Spartans, guards Denzel Valentine and Keith Appling combined for 16 rebounds.
In the loss to Wisconsin on Saturday, the Badger guards finished with seven rebounds, the same combined total for Hardaway Jr. and Robinson III.
As least Hardaway Jr. knows where the Wolverines need to improve.
There are a number of things to consider when dissecting the Wolverines’ profile, including the fact that they are coming off of the most grueling four-game stretch any team has had to face this season (at Indiana, vs. Ohio State, at Wisconsin, at Michigan State). It’s also important to consider the freshman wall, which is likely a factor in the struggles of Stauskas and Robinson III.
Coach Beilein is correct to get McGary into the starting lineup, both because he’s a capable jump shooter who’s got good hands around the rim, but also because he’s fresh. Beilein is adjusting because he knows the Wolverines are vulnerable.
And thanks to the Spartans, so does everyone else.