February 17, 2014 at 12:48 pm

John Niyo

Michigan must shake malaise if Big Ten title hopes are to be realized

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Ann Arbor — Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan had trouble pronouncing the last name of Michigan’s Nik Stauskas Sunday, laughing as it took him four or five tries to get it right.

But his Badgers had far less trouble guarding the Wolverines’ leading scorer — or most of his teammates, for that matter — in a 75-62 win that kept No. 15 Michigan from standing alone atop the Big Ten.

The same couldn’t be said for John Beilein’s team against Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, the 7-footer that Michigan’s coach kept referring to as “Kamieniecki” in his postgame remarks — not to be confused with ex-Wolverine baseball star Scott Kamieniecki, I guess.

Kaminsky finished with 25 points and 11 rebounds Sunday at the Crisler Center, including 10 points in a late 12-2 run after the Wolverines, who’d trailed by as many as 18, whittled the lead to three.

The junior capped that run — and a 7-for-7 second-half effort — with a step-back 3-pointer with 2:17 left that Ryan compared to the one Stauskas hit in Michigan’s big win in Madison a month ago.

“That was a dagger, definitely,” said Stauskas, held without a 3-pointer himself for only the third time all season. “It kind of took the energy out of us.”

Perfectly Frank

Not that they had much to begin with Sunday, sleepwalking their way through arguably their worst half of the season — at least on their home court — before finally finding a spark, thanks mostly to Caris LeVert, who finished with a career-high 25 points and six rebounds.

By then, though, it was too late —“We dug ourselves into a big hole we really couldn’t get out of,” Stauskas agreed — and there was too little being done to stop Kaminsky.

“He was everywhere today,” Stauskas said. “He was hitting jumpers, he was getting to the basket, he was posting up — he was doing everything for them.”

And therein lies the double-edged worry for this Michigan team, one that still might be the favorite to win the Big Ten regular season crown thanks to Michigan State’s stunning home loss to Nebraska Sunday.

The Wolverines have the easier schedule over the final three weeks, and they’ve got a week to regroup before hosting the Spartans next weekend. But this league’s increasingly difficult to figure — “I’ve never seen it like this,” Ryan said, when asked to handicap the race Sunday — and between Michigan State’s injury situation and Michigan’s relative youth, that title’s anybody’s to win, or lose.

But if Michigan’s going to claim their first outright title since 1985-86, I think it’s safe to say they’ll need some more pronounced leadership from their top scorers.

Neither Stauskas nor Glenn Robinson managed to assert himself again Sunday, both reaching double digits in scoring — 11 for Stauskas, 10 for Robinson — in garbage time. That’s 51 points in five games in February now for Stauskas, and the sixth time in the last seven games Robinson has finished with 10 or fewer.

They’ve gotten away with it a few times thanks to the scoring contributions of LeVert and freshmen Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. But the rookies were a combined 1-for-13 Sunday, and it showed.

“We’ll look at this and find out what our other primary scorers could’ve done to help,” Beilein said. “We’ve had some guys come off the bench — Zak in particular has been incredible off the bench — but we know that’s not gonna happen every game. We can’t expect that.”

Sophomores slump

No, but it’s fair to expect a lot more from the two sophomore stars, both of whom were tamping down NBA talk earlier this winter. Beilein lit into Stauskas during a 30-second timeout late in the first half after another careless turnover.

Michigan had as many of those (seven) as made baskets in the first half — “I made a couple bad plays coming out that kind of set the tone,” Stauskas admitted — and the Wolverines had as many assists as I did. Beilein said afterward he couldn’t remember the last time one of his teams went an entire half without an assist.

But with all those half-hearted drives into the lane and all those contested long 2-point shots —Robinson’s current funk often leads to those —it wasn’t hard to understand how it happened. Problem is, the Wolverines tend to go as their shooting does.

“I think sometimes our defense feeds off what we’re doing offensively,” Stauskas said. “If we’re not playing good offensively we don’t play good defense, so it’s kind of a vicious cycle that we get in sometimes.”

Indeed, Michigan ranks 10th in the league in defensive efficiency, and for a team that doesn’t rebound particularly well — the Badgers grabbed 44 percent of their own misses in the first half Sunday — that’s a troubling statistic come tournament time.

“We realize to be Big Ten champions we’re going to have to rely on our defense at times,” Stauskas agreed. “We know our shots aren’t always going to fall.”

Life will be so much easier when they do, though.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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Coach John Beilein shouts while Michigan tries a full-court press late in the second half, but it wasn't enough to stir the No. 15 Wolverines who fell to the No. 21 Badgers, 75-62, at Crisler Center Sunday. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News