December 14, 2013 at 6:34 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Michigan still missing go-to player, as crushing loss to Arizona demonstates

Ann Arbor – Eventually, they might win this type of game. Soon, they’ll have to win this type of game. The Wolverines possess another batch of raw talent but don’t yet have an on-court leader, so this is what they are right now -- a team that can lead No. 1 Arizona most of the way, and not quite finish the deal.

This can’t be what they are in a couple months, because there’s no more room for slippage. The Wolverines dropped a thriller to the Wildcats 72-70 at the noisy Crisler Center Saturday, and while it was a terrifically competitive game, it also was their fourth loss, and it was a crusher.

They led by 11 early in the second half and Glenn Robinson III was showing the full range of his vast potential. Michigan (6-4) needed a signature performance and was delivering, right up until Arizona (11-0) snatched it away.

A year ago, when Michigan was making its own undefeated climb to No. 1, it would’ve been TBT – Trey Burke Time. Now it’s TBA, and John Beilein is searching for someone to announce his arrival in crunch time. Robinson had 16 points in the first half, four in the second. Caris LeVert, Nik Stauskas and Spike Albrecht were the ball-handlers and shot-takers the rest of the way, but in the closing minutes, nobody took over.

Make no mistake -- Arizona’s incredible frontline makes it a legitimate No. 1, not a place-holder. The Wildcats’ big three of 6-8 Brandon Ashley, 6-9 Aaron Gordon and 7-foot Kaleb Tarczewski combined for 46 points and 20 rebounds, and destroyed the Wolverines on the offensive glass.

'Getting better'

The good news is, Michigan won’t face another team as tall and athletic as Arizona. The sobering news is, Michigan isn’t getting any taller and Burke is not walking through that door. The hope is, because the Wolverines have youthful talent and good coaching, they can improve fairly quickly, and I think they will.

“You can definitely tell we’re getting better,” said Robinson III, who shot 8-for-9. “A couple weeks ago, this game wouldn’t have been this close, in my opinion. I think we’re figuring it out. We still have a long way to go, but if we keep the right mindset and guys don’t get down and people don’t get too selfish, I think we can be a great team.”

Robinson is still the barometer, a gifted 6-6 slasher-shooter who doesn’t always have the ball and isn’t inclined to demand it. He took only two shots in the second half, which is puzzling, as Michigan’s 37-28 lead dwindled. But the offense was working through others and the Wolverines shot 50 percent for the game, so that wasn’t the primary issue. Their defense disappeared and they were outrebounded 37-24, as Mitch McGary and Jon Horford got overpowered by the big Cats.

The lead changed hands five times in the final two-and-a-half minutes, and Michigan took its final edge 66-65 on a Stauskas drive with 1:14 remaining. But the Wildcats chased down another offensive rebound, junior guard Nick Johnson hit six straight free throws, and Stauskas narrowly missed a long jumper.

Arizona coach Sean Miller smartly ordered a foul on Albrecht with 6.7 seconds left and Michigan down three, and the strategy served its purpose. I suppose you could say this game served its purpose for both teams, confirming the Wildcats are really, really good, and the Wolverines have the potential to be pretty darn good.

Brutally competitive

LeVert is developing into a dynamic all-around player and Stauskas is a fearless shooter, and either can handle the ball. Freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. could be good, but expecting a reprisal of what Burke did his first two seasons is expecting too much.

“I thought we made a major stride, even in defeat,” Beilein said. “This would’ve been a great win and would’ve meant something today. But it probably wouldn’t have meant anything in January to us. ... We have to win in the Big Ten, and this year it will be even more competitive.”

It will be brutally competitive at the top, with Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State ranked 3-4-5 in the AP poll. Michigan began the season No. 7 but tumbled after losing three -- by seven at Iowa State, two to Charlotte and 10 at Duke. They’re out of chances for an eye-opening victory before the Big Ten season with only Stanford and Holy Cross remaining.

A national audience saw the Wolverines scrap to the finish Saturday, and in some ways, it helped their profile. But there’s still the matter of actually collecting victories, and an NCAA Tournament berth is never guaranteed. Is Michigan better than 6-4? Probably, but the numbers are the numbers and progress has to come quickly, although Arizona saw enough.

“I can’t say enough about Michigan and how well they’re coached, the style they play and the amazing atmosphere,” Miller said. “For us to overcome a really good team in a great environment, we leave here knowing this is as quality a win as you can have in the country.”

It would’ve been a huge boon for Michigan and it was right there. The jumper Stauskas missed with 11 seconds left wasn’t a great shot, but he’s made it plenty of times.

“I don’t think anyone on this team is worried,” Stauskas said. “They’re the No. 1 team in the country and it’s not like they blew us out of the water. We can’t hang our heads low. We gotta be confident.”

They should be thoroughly motivated to get tougher on the interior and figure out who should have the ball when. Because while this was an impressive effort, they know it’s exactly the type of game they’ll have to win.

Nik Stauskas plays it cool, despite the fired-up presence of Mitch McGary, after Stauskas scored and drew a foul in the second half. / John T. Greilick / Detroit News
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