Michigan Basketball: Wolverines' 5 Biggest Concerns in Big Ten Play
For the moment, a young Michigan basketball team, one that features just two upperclassmen, is riding high following a 3-0 start to Big Ten Conference play. The Wolverines scored road victories over Minnesota and Nebraska and routed Northwestern at home.
Unfortunately, those three victories exposed five major flaws for the Wolverines. Each of these shortcomings has the potential to derail any hopes that Michigan has at contending for a Big Ten title.
Some are easier to overcome than others. A couple of these concerns are out of the Wolverines' hands entirely. Such is life in the Big Ten, which appears to be the strongest conference in college basketball for a second straight year.
It is no secret that Michigan likes to play small ball. The Wolverines consistently trot out a lineup featuring four players listed under 6'7" and rotate between a pair of big men with situational shortcomings at the 5. This could lead to some rebounding woes against the taller and more physical lineups in the Big Ten.
Three teams that immediately come to mind are Iowa, Michigan State and Wisconsin.
The former puts 7-footer Adam Woodbury alongside Aaron White, who stands 6'9" and averages 6.6 rebounds per game. Reserve forward Jarrod Uthoff is the team's third-leading rebounder and is the same height as White.
Meanwhile, Michigan State rolls out dynamic center Adreian Payne, who will be a tough matchup for Michigan's bigs, given his ability to play out on the perimeter.
The same goes with Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky, a 7-footer with great touch who shoots 47.7 percent from three-point range.
Michigan ranks No. 86 nationally in rebounding percentage, which puts the team seventh among Big Ten teams. Recent games have further brought this issue to light as well. Against Nebraska, the Wolverines were out-rebounded 26-20 and conceded eight offensive boards. Minnesota battered Michigan on the glass 38-24 and collected 15 offensive rebounds.
Unless the Wolverines start doing a better job of boxing out, they are going to struggle against the top teams in the league.
Michigan's defense has been troubling for much of this season, especially against stout competition. Nebraska further exploited those issues on Thursday night. If the Cornhuskers, which have yet to win a Big Ten game and have lost four games by double digits, can exploit the Wolverines' biggest flaw, so can the rest of the league.
"The Wolverines were helpless defending dribble penetration, especially off the high ball screen, in the second half," Joe Stapleton of UMHoops wrote after the 71-70 win over Nebraska. "Michigan can make improvements on that end of the floor but the defensive ceiling is low. U-M guards haven’t proven themselves to be great defenders and there’s not a rim protector to make up for their mistakes."
Nebraska consistently drove the lane, and things got even messier for Michigan's defense when ball screens were set on the perimeter. Once in the paint, the Cornhuskers either finished at the rim or kicked the rock out to open shooters.
This enabled Nebraska to shoot 53 percent from the field, which is 10 percent higher than its season-average.
If that performance by Michigan's defense was a sign of things to come, it will be in serious trouble once the schedule toughens up this month.
Six of Michigan's games have been decided by three points or less this season. The Wolverines are 4-2 in those contests, and free throws had a major hand in the outcomes.
The Maize and Blue were just 3-of-9 against Nebraska, 18-of-26 versus Stanford and 17-of-27 against Florida State. In a three-point win over Minnesota, the Wolverines missed four freebies in the closing minute of regulation.
What is more disturbing is Michigan's lack of a go-to free-throw shooter. No Wolverine shoots better than 78.6 percent from the charity stripe, and only three contributors knock down more than 69 percent of their attempts. That is not ideal for late-game situations when the outcome is still up in the air.
There are going to be plenty of close games throughout Big Ten play. How Michigan performs at the foul line will determine the outcome of those contests. Right now, though, things do not look great in that department.
Youth in the Backcourt
There is not a single upperclassman in the Michigan backcourt. Two sophomores and a true freshman make up the starting guards, and the first man off the bench is also a true frosh. This can often lead to rough outings and silly mistakes at inopportune moments.
Look no further than the Wolverines' nail-biting victory over Minnesota for evidence.
Without a doubt, freshmen guards Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin are growing up quickly.
However, both are still learning and are going to disappear at times. For instance, Irvin's recent hot streak came to a close against Nebraska. He entered the game with a pair of double-digit outings in the last four contests. He finished with zero points on 0-of-3 shooting in just 11 minutes. Earlier in the season against No. 1 Arizona, he played just six minutes and did not record a point.
On the other hand, Walton has looked much better as of late. The Harper Woods, Mich. product went 6-of-10 from the field with 21 points in Michigan's last two games. Expect a similar outing against Penn State, but who knows what will happen when the Wolverines travel to Wisconsin and Michigan State later this month?
Caris LeVert has not been immune from inconsistency either. While he is making great strides at the defensive end of the floor, his shot is a bit erratic. In contests against Stanford, Minnesota and Northwester, he went 3-of-19. Versus Holy Cross and Nebraska, however, he scored 26 points on 11-of-16 shooting.
Nik Stauskas has been the most reliable guard of the bunch. Even when he is not scoring, he is creating opportunities for others with dribble penetration and pick-and-roll chances.
Young players are going to make mistakes. Hopefully, those errors will not come during the critical moments of Michigan's 2013-14 campaign.
Depth of the Big Ten
Once again, the Big Ten is arguably the best and deepest league in college basketball. The conference boasts three of the Top Five teams in the nation and two others ranked in the Top 25, which is more than any other league in the country.
Michigan is not even one of those ranked teams. Neither is Minnesota or Indiana, despite the fact the two have a combined record of 23-8.
The Big Ten also boasts seven NCAA tournament teams in Joe Lunardi's latest edition of Bracketology on ESPN.com. Two of those squads, Michigan State and Wisconsin, are projected as No. 1 seeds. Ohio State is listed as a No. 2 seed.
Any way you stack it, the Big Ten is America's top conference, on paper anyway.
Michigan State became king of this group following its victory over Ohio State, but Wisconsin is undefeated and not far behind.
Those are the teams that Michigan is hunting. The same goes for Iowa and Illinois. The schedule does not do the Wolverines any favor. They must travel to Ohio State and Illinois without either one having to make a trip to the Crisler Center. The Maize and Blue also only get one crack at bottom-feeders Penn State and Northwestern.
As deep as the Big Ten is, very few teams would not be concerned as league play begins to heat up.