Paul: Wounded Michigan admits it's far from elite

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — It's not Caris LeVert. It's not a lack of leadership. It's not a lack of mental toughness, either.

Michigan coach John Beilein doesn't want to hear any of those excuses right now.

Particularly, he winced when asked about mental toughness, first brought up by his players.

"Nah. Nah," Beilein said, through chomps on his gum following another stinker of a loss, this time to chief rival Michigan State, 89-73. "Our kids are trying everything that they've got. Everything they've got.

"Those are typical excuses.

"I'll tell you the same thing after Indiana, they're so much better than us, you guys have to be looking at that? We've gotta get better, through improvement, through maturation, through our guys getting older and avoid injuries. Then, we can play.

"It's really hard right now, against teams like this."

For the second time in a week, Michigan -- feeling so good after the first half of the Big Ten season -- got its teeth absolutely kicked in, first by Indiana on Wednesday, then by Michigan State on Saturday.

If not for some OK play late by some bench-warmers, Beilein twice would've suffered the most-lopsided home losses in his nine-year tenure at Michigan.

The Indiana loss stung, to be sure. But Michigan, at least, had Michigan State to look forward to.

Not anymore. Two games. Two merciless whuppings.

Irvin's ire

So frustrated, Zak Irvin went off on his teammates during a second-half huddle.

"I'm just fed up with the way we've been playing these last two games," said Irvin, who finished with a team-high 19 points.

"We need to take it more personally, especially this game against Michigan State.

"We just really need to do some soul-searching.

"You got them laughing at us on our home court. These past two games, teams have just punked us, and we can't let that happen."

It's not clear how Michigan, exactly, can stop that from happening.

Michigan has looked good against some good teams this year, with wins over Texas, and Maryland at home, and Nebraska on the road.

But against the elite of the elite, it's gotten run out of the gym -- with LeVert against Xavier and SMU, without LeVert against Indiana and Michigan State.

The Wolverines, who never got closer than 13 points the final 29 minutes, 13 seconds, can shoot and score, in case you forget (and you're forgiven if you have), but so many of their baskets are set up in transition -- particularly for Duncan Robinson -- and there's no transition offense if your defense is allowing teams to shoot 61.3 percent, as Indiana did in the first half in rolling over Michigan early, and 64, as Michigan State did for the entire game.

Michigan started the week 17-5, 7-2 in the Big Ten; it's now 17-7, 7-4 in the Big Ten, with more games against Purdue, Maryland and Iowa, with trips to Wisconsin and Ohio State. Nothing's guaranteed for this Michigan team -- not LeVert's return (getting better, Beilein says day after day) and not an NCAA Tournament appearance.

You get the sense that reality is starting to settle in for the Wolverines, who panic when things start going south -- and often start chucking 3s, many contested ones, like they did in the first half Saturday, when they were 4-for-16.

Answers are within

"There's no excuse," said Aubrey Dawkins, who scored 14. "We've gotta find a way to win, with or without Caris.

"At the end of the day, we have good players on this team who are playing right now. We just need to find it within ourself.

"We have guys that understand it's not all about one game. It may seem like it today."

Michigan got some inspired play by the Detroit native for whom this game means the most, Derrick Walton Jr., who battled as best he could against Michigan State's lights-out shooter, Bryn Forbes.

But the inspiring performances were few and far between for the Wolverines, who next play Wednesday, at Minnesota, which isn't an automatic win -- not considering the Gophers nearly won at Crisler last month, and are hungry for a first Big Ten win.

The trip comes at an ideal time; the Wolverines might not be able to look their fans -- who finally packed the place twice this week, only to flood out well before the final buzzer -- in the eye for awhile.

It's not about looking fans in the eye, though. It's about Michigan looking at itself in the mirror, stopping with the excuses, and deciding if it's going to be a team that can't hang with the best, or a team that just gets outclassed.

"You get knocked down, and now you get knocked down and somebody steps on your head," said Beilein, before a slow walk down a hallway at Crisler, scratching his head, and his head slumped. "I've gotta find the answers. It's on me."