December 5, 2013 at 2:44 am

Rod Beard

Michigan, off to sluggish start, remains work in progress on offense

Sophomore Mitch McGary (4) led Michigan had 15 points and 14 rebounds in Tuesday's loss to Duke. (Gerry Broome / Associated Press)

Durham, N.C. — Mitch McGary tried to field questions following No. 22 Michigan’s 79-69 loss to No. 10 Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Tuesday night.

He did his best to provide insightful responses, but struggled to find the complete answers, much as the Wolverines did against the Blue Devils on both ends of the court.

“It’s a hostile environment,” McGary said. “It just goes to show that we’re going to learn from this and come back; we’re a bounce-back team.”

What the Wolverines have to learn is this: Big-time players play best in big-time games.

Caris LeVert — not McGary or leading scorer Nik Stauskas or Glenn Robinson III — led the Wolverines with 24 points. LeVert’s second half (20 points) was two off what Michigan scored the first half.

But, coach John Beilein barked at the notion the problem is a lack of production from his three leaders: McGary, Stauskas and Robinson.

“We didn’t have trouble scoring points in the second half; we just had a really bad offensive first half,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it was big three, little three — whatever it is — we didn’t score in the first half.

“It’s not about who or when. They made shots in the first half and we missed them.”

Those are strong words from a normally calm and collected Beilein, but amplifies the frustration many fans feel at his team’s lackluster 5-3 start, including losses at Iowa State and to Charlotte in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off title game.

Growing pains

McGary, recovering from a lower-back condition that held him out of the most of the early-season practice schedule, had his best game Tuesday with 15 points and 14 rebounds. But most of his points came the final two minutes, after the Blue Devils led by as many as 16.

He also hasn’t meshed well with another big man — Jordan Morgan or Jon Horford — on the court at the same time. McGary is averaging 9.3 points and 8.8 rebounds, but has scored in double figures twice (Florida State and Duke).

Stauskas, averaging 20.3 points, is recovering from an ankle sprain. He was held to four points and attempted two shots, missing both.

“They did a good job of denying Nik, making it tough for him to score — Glenn as well,” LeVert said. “We didn’t knock down shots and do things we needed to do to win.”

With Duke hounding Stauskas and denying him the ball, Michigan struggled, starting 3-for-19.

“We didn’t get a lot of easy shots but we did get a few that we missed early that could have kept it where we wanted to be,” Beilein said. “Obviously, we’re missing Nik’s normal game, so we just had trouble scoring points without him.”

Michigan still is evolving offensively, with Stauskas taking over much of the scoring load.

But LeVert turned out to be the best option Tuesday, as he showed an ability to break down Duke’s defense and get to the rim.

“He was terrific,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Instead of just shooting the ball from the outside, he drove the ball and gave them a huge lift when Stauskas wasn’t scoring.

“They were having a hard time scoring, and LeVert put them on his back.”

LeVert could be the most improved player in the Big Ten, but has shouldered more of the load when McGary, Stauskas and Robinson have been unable to produce. That’s asking a lot from a player who averaged 2.3 points last season.

Robinson still is an enigma.

Although he’s averaging 11.6 points, he’s not living up to preseason predictions of being a first-round pick. In three losses, he scored 12 (Iowa State), four (Charlotte) and eight (Duke).

Plenty to learn

What’s the lesson the Wolverines can take from a tough road defeat?

As they’ve shown in each of their losses, they’re not yet good enough to dig into a deficit, play catch-up and beat a good team.

“It’s just showing how much we can learn from playing in these hostile environments,” McGary said. “We need to play with a lot more poise and down the road, it will help.”

Beilein and the young Wolverines can only hope so.

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