After two straight losses in the Old Spice Classic and a four-point loss to Boston College in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, is it time for Michigan fans to recalibrate their expectations for this season?
Michigan entered the season ranked 15th in the nation, fresh off its first trip to the NCAA tournament in 10 years, and looking to make a run at the Big Ten title.
Seven games later, Michigan is out of the Top 25 and needed a good second half on Saturday against Arkansas-Pine Bluff to move its record back above .500.
Is it too early to write off the season? Absolutely not. John Beilein is a great coach who can turn things around.
But, although these early-season struggles raise some concerns, they aren’t as surprising as they seem.
This is still a very young team. Yes, it’s led by senior DeShawn Sims and junior Manny Harris, but 75 percent of the team is underclassmen.
Aside from Sims and Harris, only redshirt senior Zack Gibson and redshirt junior Anthony Wright have more than a year of playing experience, and the two combine for just 20 minutes of playing time per game.
So it should come as no surprise that the team’s main problem is its shooting so far this season. Michigan seems to be struggling with its confidence.
Through seven games, Michigan is shooting just 29 percent from three-point range, though even that number is inflated from the first three games against weak competition.
Against Northern Michigan, Houston Baptist, and Creighton, Michigan shot 36.2 percent from long range.
In the three subsequent losses, Michigan shot just 21.8 percent from downtown, including a miserable 3-for-20 outing against Marquette and 9-for-34 against Boston College.
Talk about living and dying by the three.
No one has looked comfortable shooting the ball the past four games (including Saturday’s 67-53 win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff).
Michigan’s best three-point shooter so far this season (percentage-wise) is true freshman Matt Vogrich, though he is just 6-for-11.
Sharp-shooting sophomores Zach Novak and Stu Douglass are just 31 and 22.6 percent, respectively, while Harris has made just 7-of-33 attempts from long range.
For a team that relies heavily on guard play and three-point shooting, that’s certainly not a recipe for success.
But that’s also why I’m hopeful that the season is not lost. Surely the team will gain its confidence and the shooting will improve.
Douglass, Novak and Harris each shot about 34 percent last season from three-point range and will eventually find their shot this year. And when that happens, Michigan will be a dangerous team capable of beating anybody.
So far, Harris has been every bit of the pre-season co-Big Ten player of the year, averaging 21.1 points and 8.7 rebounds per game, despite his poor shooting.
He had just the second triple-double in school history in Michigan’s season-opening win over Northern Michigan, and was a rebound away from another against Creighton.
Sims has also played well, averaging 15.3 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, and had his best game of the season on Saturday against Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
He scored 15 points in the first half on his way to a 19-point, 10-rebound performance.
The surrounding cast hasn’t given Harris and Sims much help and Michigan needs a third scoring threat to emerge in order to live up to the preseason expectations.
It makes me wonder if the losses of guards David Merritt and C.J. Lee to graduation really did affect this team more than I thought it would.
Merritt and Lee averaged just 4.7 points per game combined, but they were the leaders. They played tough defense, dove for loose balls, and held the team together.
Early this season, Michigan has lacked those qualities. Novak vowed to fill that role, but hasn’t been a consistent scoring option so far.
True freshman Darius Morris took over the point guard duties, but has just as many turnovers as assists and doesn’t look to shoot enough.
Douglass is a defensive liability when he’s on the court, which is acceptable when he’s hitting threes, but he hasn’t found his shot yet this year.
As the season progresses, Michigan will grow to fill that void, but it’s running out of time.
With non-conference games at Utah and Kansas remaining, as well as a January match-up with Connecticut, Michigan probably has to win two of those three to have a shot at postseason play.
Utah certainly looks beatable, having losses to Idaho, Seattle, and Weber State on its resume, but it did beat Illinois, and the game is in Salt Lake, so it’s not a given.
Michigan ended its three-game losing streak by beating Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Saturday and seemed to find its rhythm in the second half.
If it can carry over that confidence into Wednesday’s game at Utah, Michigan will be on track to enter the Big Ten schedule.
It’s not time to panic yet, but Utah could be the game that makes or breaks the season. A loss will probably mean Michigan needs to beat Kansas and UConn or fare far better in the Big Ten than expected.
I expect the shooting will turn around, but it better do so on Wednesday in Salt Lake City.