Michigan players meet to fix team’s problems

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Michigan senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. wanted to find out what was really going on.

Coming off an 85-69 drubbing at Illinois last week, the “white collar” Wolverines — as labeled by Fighting Illini center Maverick Morgan — were left soul-searching as they could ill-afford to fall to 1-4 in Big Ten play.

That didn’t sit well with Walton, so on Friday night he called a players-only meeting that lasted roughly a half-hour to do some self-evaluation.

“We stayed at a hotel last night and we all met in my room and just discussed everybody, everything that we can do better,” Walton said. “There’s only so many games left. We’re hitting the mid-stretch and the back stretch is coming soon so it’s time to make some noise.

“I feel like we’re a ton better team than we’ve showed and our record doesn’t show that. I think we’re a lot better than we’re playing and I think guys are ready to show that.”

The Wolverines responded with a 91-85 win over Nebraska Saturday afternoon at Crisler Center to end a two-game skid in Big Ten play, sparking what they hope is a turnaround heading into a rocky conference stretch that begins Tuesday night at Wisconsin.

“I think it’s not necessarily panic mode starting off 1-3 (in Big Ten) but we need to get things in check and make sure everyone is on the right page because we do have to play with a sense of urgency,” said senior forward Zak Irvin, who finished with 21 points and seven assists. “I think that was one of the things we talked about in our meeting, just being able to hit the restart button and this game was the beginning of a new season. That’s what we wanted to key on and we were able to do that.”

Michigan coach John Beilein said after some prodding following Friday’s practice, he found out about the meeting and encouraged it.

“They basically told me yesterday when I wanted to talk to them for five minutes after film, they said, ‘Coach, we already got it. We’re going to meet in the hotel, too, and you don’t have to do anything. Just keep coaching us,’ ” Beilein said. “That was the message.”

With the feeling that the season is hanging in the balance, that message seemed to get through — at least for one game.

“We all know every game matters,” said Walton, who scored 13 of his 20 points in the final six minutes. “At the end of the season, you don’t know what game is going to propel you over another team, so we saw some things in the game. We’re playing so well in the first half and some things happen in the second half that makes you just want to come together and really find out what’s going on.

“After that game, we thought it was a great idea to really talk about what’s really going on internally with this team. Going forward, I think it’s going to make a big difference.”

Layup drill

While Michigan has struggled mightily to defend the 3-point shot, its interior defense was exposed all game long by Nebraska. The Wolverines overcompensated and focused on taking away 3-pointers, which led to many easy layups.

The Cornhuskers finished with 44 of their 85 points in the paint — and that was without top post player Ed Morrow playing.

Michigan needs a spark, and Wagner, Walton deliver

“It certainly hurt us in some ways because Ed is a guy that scores at the rim for us. If you look at his shot chart, he’s always on the rim,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “He shoots a high percentage but our guards can get there, too, and I thought they did a good job getting there. We play at the rim and we got there.”

Michigan particularly had a hard time slowing guards Tai Webster (28 points) and Glynn Watson Jr. (22 points), who combined for nine layups on 21 made baskets.

“We went zone in the second half because we had no answers,” Beilein said. “Then when Tim put his shooters in and he switched screens on us after that then they shot us out of the zone.”

Slam dunks

Sophomore forward Moritz Wagner took a shot to the head while setting a screen and needed assistance off the court when he checked out with 42 seconds remaining.

“I would assume the doctors are seeing him right now,” Beilein said. “He was supposed to screen and get the heck out of there and somehow he got hung up and got hit.

“I saw it after and said, ‘You all right?’ He said yes but I think we’ll go through some protocol now. Hopefully he’s very healthy.”

… Michigan finished 26-for-30 from the free-throw line against Nebraska, setting a season-high for made attempts. The previous high was 24 against South Carolina.

Over the first four Big Ten games combined, the Wolverines were 33-for-46 from the stripe.

… Michigan has won the last seven meetings between the teams since Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011.

Afterward, Miles said he couldn't wait to get another crack at the Wolverines. The two teams will meet again in the regular-season finale on March 5 at Nebraska.

“I can’t wait to play Michigan again," he said. "We’ll welcome them back to Pinnacle Bank Arena with open arms and I’m excited for the game already. I wish we played tonight.”

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com: @jamesbhawkins