Ann Arbor — Michigan coach John Beilein can’t quite put his finger on it.
The past three games, the Wolverines have arguably had their worst first halves of the season. They sputtered out the gate and put up 20 points against Maryland, 21 at Nebraska and 27 against Rutgers, which rank among three of the team’s four lowest-scoring halves through 22 games.
Granted, Michigan was in the midst of a four-game, nine-day stretch, and fatigue and lack of prep time could’ve contributed to the slow starts.
But Beilein said the biggest factor that has been hindering his team as of late is the uncertainty how opponents are going to come out and defend Michigan’s offense.
“I probably can’t explain it,” Beilein said following Sunday’s 62-47 win over Rutgers. “We don’t know going into it, we’re guessing how they’re going to play us so usually I’m just watching.
“I want our guys to be as basic as they can in the first few times up the court so I can find out how they’re playing us. I don’t know what they’re going to do. Again, another team (Rutgers) switched most of the ball screens and we’re trying to figure it out.”
Both Nebraska and Rutgers switching gave Michigan fits during the feeling-out process. It led to a troubling number of first-half turnovers against the Cornhuskers, and a failure to move the ball to the open man against the Scarlet Knights.
“The biggest thing is the ball is not sticking and (against Rutgers) the ball stuck immediately,” Beilein said. “Whether it’s nerves, whatever it is and (the players) are also reading how the team is going to play us. When they’re going through the reads, I think it has given us some paralysis.
“So, it’s something that we have got to keep working on and getting better starts, because I think at Michigan State we had a pretty solid start. We certainly didn’t against Nebraska, Maryland and (Rutgers), but we fought through it with good defense.”
Junior center Moritz Wagner has a different take, and said the slow starts have nothing to do with making offensive adjustments. Rather, it starts on the other end of the floor.
“I think it has a lot to do with defense just because our defense is our offense,” Wagner said. “If we lock up and we get steals or rebounds, we can run and that’s what we’re trying to do. If we don’t guard and they score on us easily like Nebraska did in the first couple minutes, you can’t run.
“Then you have to play set plays, which is also good, but then they have a plan against that. Our goal is to not even go into those situations and just hoop because we have good basketball players and that’s what we do best.”
Senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman noted Michigan struggled last season when opponents first started switching every ball screen before it eventually became one of the best teams at attacking it.
While it takes time to adapt to whatever is thrown their way, especially with younger guys playing key roles, fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson said it’s an area the Wolverines will continue to improve at down the stretch.
“I think that’s one thing that we did really well at the end of last year is a team would guard us a certain way, we’d adjust and punch them in the mouth,” Robinson said. “Right now, I feel like when we see something differently we would kind back up on our heels a little bit. But that’s part of being on a young team, and we’ve got a great leader in Coach B who certainly is going to steer us in the right direction.”
Michigan reached the midway point of the Big Ten season and sits in fourth place with a 6-3 mark behind Purdue (8-0), Ohio State (8-0) and Michigan State (5-2) entering play Monday.
While many consider the Buckeyes to be a surprise contender, Beilein isn’t one of them.
“Keita Bates-Diop, if he was there last year Ohio State would have had a much different season,” he said. “They’re seasoned a little bit. They got a great freshman big man (Kaleb Wesson), so the way they’re playing is really interesting.
“But I’ve never seen anybody just annihilate people the way Purdue is right now. They’re very good.”
The Boilermakers have won 15 straight and 10 of their last 11 by double digits, including three straight by at least 23 points at Minnesota, against Wisconsin and at Iowa. Their lone close call during the win streak was a one-point squeaker over Michigan.
The Wolverines will play the Boilermakers and Buckeyes each one more time this season. They play at Purdue on Thursday and host Ohio State in the home finale on Feb. 18.
“Any of the teams with two or three losses, we’re all fighting,” Beilein said. “Those teams (Purdue and Ohio State) are not even close to people right now. They’re winning those games and everybody has got to keep fighting, but we’re a couple losses away from that.”
With freshman Isaiah Livers picking up two early fouls in the first half against Rutgers, Robinson provided a scoring boost during an ugly first half with three 3-pointers.
Robinson finished 4-for-8 from beyond the arc – his fifth game this season with at least four made 3-pointers – for 12 points in 30 minutes. It nearly matched his scoring production (13 points) from the previous four games and was just his second double-digit outing in the past seven contests.
Since moving to the bench and being replaced by Livers in the starting lineup, Robinson is shooting 46.7 percent (7-for-15) on 3-pointers.
“Well, that’s the dude I know. That’s my roommate, that’s the player I played with the last three years,” Wagner said. “I’m not surprised at all. I’m very proud of him the way he bounced back.
“I always tell him to hunt shots even when he goes 0-for-9. I don’t care because I know the more he misses, the higher percentage it is that it goes in next time.”