Struggling UM focuses on finishing games
Ann Arbor — With six losses in seven games, the emphasis for Michigan has been on offense and scoring easily.
In 26 games, Michigan scored 70 or more points nine times, going 8-1. When they score fewer than 70, the Wolverines are 5-12, including 2-6 since Caris LeVert's season-ending foot fracture Jan. 17.
And during that eight-game span since the injury, Michigan scored more than 60 four times — and two of those were overtime losses, including last week at Illinois.
"The big thing for us is just finishing games," sophomore forward Zak Irvin said. "We're right there. Especially in the (Illinois) game, we held the lead for most of the game and they made their run. We know every team is going to make a run; we just have to stay together when it gets late."
Junior guard Spike Albrecht said the difference is mental.
"There were a few mental lapses down the stretch defensively, and we may have rushed some shots offensively," Albrecht said. "But we also got some good looks in the last two or three minutes that we just didn't make and that's frustrating to have shots go in and out."
Entering Tuesday's game against Michigan Sate, part of the defensive focus was on slowing Denzel Valentine, who had 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in the first meeting Feb. 1.
Without LeVert and Derrick Walton Jr., the Wolverines played more zone defense, which left some openings for the Spartans to exploit.
"He's got the rare combination that he can really rebound, his 3-point shot is as high-level as there is in the league," Michigan coach John Beilein said of Valentine. "He really can see the floor.
"He's just a tough, hard-nosed kid who really knows how to play. He's limited his turnovers, which kept him from being as good as he was earlier. Now, he's a really complete player — as good as anybody in the league."
Focus on rebounding
Michigan State has dominated the rebounding margin in the rivalry, including a 43-29 advantage the first meeting.
Beilein was hoping to close that margin a little.
"You'd like to make up for the rebounding by just having better possessions offensively and not turning the ball over," Beilein said. "We've been really good at being able to negate rebounding disadvantage; we're not so good at it so far this year."
Senior big man Max Bielfeldt has been playing a bigger role for Michigan inside, and although he isn't dominant with his height (6-foot-7), he finds his way inside. Freshman Ricky Doyle, at 6-9, had one rebound the first meeting.
That size disparity could prove difficult to overcome again, if UM sticks with its zone defense, which has been more successful than man-to-man.
"We don't have a lot of ways to negate rebounding, so we have to get a body on somebody and do a fundamental block-out and hope the ball bounces our way and hope it's not as much a jump ball as it much as it is a possession rebound," Beilein said.