Chicago -- Gradually, dutifully, opponents seem to be figuring out Michigan. So now here the Wolverines sit, staring at the next step: Figuring themselves out.
If Michigan came to the Big Ten tournament to unravel its own mysteries, that didn't work out so well. There's no mystery about the misery that is Wisconsin. And after the Badgers alternately blundered and blistered in a 68-59 victory Friday, the Wolverines headed home still confounding, capable of winning games, not trusted to win the big ones.
Two things remain blatantly obvious about the Wolverines, 26-7 and probably still a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They don't play consistently good defense, especially in the interior. And they have an incredible game-changer in Trey Burke.
The problem is, Burke can't do it all, even when it appears he can. With the Wolverines trailing by 11 with six minutes left, Burke took over, driving for baskets, hitting jumpers, and suddenly, Wisconsin's lead was 56-54. And then, poof, the rally ended in another flurry of Wisconsin layups and free throws.
And the point was apparent again, that for all Burke's terrific ability, he can take a team only so far. He didn't shoot well but scored 19 points after tallying 21 in the opening win against Penn State. More startling, Michigan had seven total assists against Wisconsin, and all seven were by Burke.
"I try not to go into a game thinking that way (about taking over), but when we were down nine or 10 with four minutes left, I felt I needed to make plays, because the offense was stagnating," Burke said. "It's definitely still a balance I'm trying to find. My intentions are to get people going, but when the teams are pretty much hugging the perimeter to stop us, my shot in the paint is usually there. That's pretty much every team's scouting report, try to stop the pick and roll."
Opponents force the big men to roll, while maniacally denying open three-pointers. The Wolverines didn't hit one until deep in the second half, and were three-for-13.
Nobody can ugly up a game like Bo Ryan and Wisconsin, but Michigan has become a relatively easy team to ugly up. For all the gaudy numbers generated by John Beilein's offense, it's hard for Michigan to get going against physical, defensive teams such as Wisconsin and Michigan State.
It can get occasionally frustrating for Burke, the Big Ten scoring champ and Player of the Year. This likely is his last run before heading to the NBA, and he has to push, push, push young teammates probably faster than they can go. Jordan Morgan looks lost in the post right now, and had zero points and three turnovers in eight minutes against the Badgers.
Mitch McGary has added an emotional spark, and that has to continue. But he's a freshman, along with Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas, and the big moments still buckle them. Robinson missed all four of his free throws and Stauskas was one-for-eight from the field.
"It's just one game and we know this game has nothing to do with the NCAA Tournament," Stauskas said. "It's a fresh start for us, and we have to emphasize our defense. It's all about finding a way to make it work."
Now 33 games into the season, the Wolverines are still hunting for the proper balance. As Wisconsin showed with 61-percent shooting in the second half, Michigan's defense won't win many games by itself. The Wolverines were slow in their rotations, leaving Badgers open everywhere.
And when the defense breaks, it's back to Burke.
"Sometimes we become a little too dependent on him," Stauskas said. "He did a good job and brought us back late. But sometimes we kind of stand around and watch him off the dribble."
It's a natural reaction. It's just difficult to count so profoundly on one guy, especially when a balanced team like Wisconsin works its inside-outside pattern and gets wide-open three-pointers for big fellas like Mike Bruesewitz.
Michigan doesn't have the inside game to open up the outside, unless Burke creates something for Tim Hardaway Jr. or someone else.
"I think teams are catching onto it, but we're so talented, we're still able to get open shots," Burke said. "People's opinion might be that we're not physical, but they still have to guard us. And I think we're much more physical than we were at the beginning of the year."
They still rely heavily on outside shooting, a dangerous way to play in the Tournament. Burke is the stirring constant, scoring at least 15 points in every Big Ten game. Most of the time, the points are needed because the Wolverines' defense is hardly smothering. It's partly a lack of size and experience, but the plain truth is, they're running out of time to figure it out.
Jordan Morgan, Spike Albrecht, Mitch McGary and Jon Horford watch dejectedly from the Michigan bench. / Dale G. Young/Detroit News
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