It’s been a confounding month for Michigan, to say the least.
Against arguably two of the top teams in the nation, the Wolverines have delivered their best performances. They pushed Purdue to the brink twice — losing both games by a combined five points — and handed rival Michigan State its lone home loss this season with a double-digit victory.
Then against the likes of Maryland and Minnesota, Michigan was able to claw out wins, despite trailing the majority of the first half and surviving late-game defensive lapses and subpar shooting.
“The win that we had over Minnesota on Saturday I felt like we didn’t deserve to win it. We just didn’t play well enough to win it, but somehow we won it,” Michigan coach John Beilein said during his weekly radio show Wednesday night. “We had some issues that we just got to keep working with. It’s not issues of discipline. It’s issues of people just changing habits.”
And according to Beilein, those same habits have prevented Michigan from getting better and resurfaced in Tuesday’s deflating 61-52 loss at Northwestern.
There’s the tendency for players to get the angle on a drive only to pick up their dribble after a little bit of contact instead of fighting through it.
There’s the inclination for right-handed players to continually go to their left and drive into “hell’s kitchen,” a scenario Beilein likened to a right-handed quarterback rolling out to his left.
There’s times a player will successfully use a pump fake to shed a defender and get an open look only to pass out of it.
And in addition to the free-throw woes that have hindered Michigan, junior center Moritz Wagner cited turnovers in transition and poor decision-making as mistakes that have continued to creep up on offense the last couple weeks.
“I think we got to do a better job of recognizing the flow of the game and take what’s coming at us,” Wagner said following Tuesday’s loss.
The bad news is all those unfavorable habits contributed to Michigan’s worst loss of the season — in terms of RPI — and has added pressure to bolster its resume with five regular-season games remaining.
But the encouraging news is all the issues are correctable — even as befuddling as the last month has been.
“You can’t explain why. Why did North Carolina and Duke both lose at home last week?” Beilein said. “You go on the road, it’s difficult. You just got to say, ‘OK, that’s one.’ Why have the (NBA’s Cleveland) Cavs lost all these games and are not playing well? There’s just parts of the game that just don’t happen in games. What do you do? You just say, ‘OK, let’s grow from it.’
“The talent is there. It just needs to develop more.”
In the zone
Switching to a zone defense in the second half against Minnesota last weekend proved to be a turning point for Michigan and helped the Wolverines combat the Gophers’ dribble penetration down the stretch.
While it was a rare deviation from Michigan’s standard man-to-man defense, Beilein hasn’t ruled out using it again.
“I finally had the courage to play zone and we haven’t done a lot of it. It’s worked really (well),” Beilein said. “Our defensive efficiency rating is really good on that zone so far so maybe we’ll play it some more.”
Beilein has utilized a 1-3-1 zone in the past to create turnovers but said he realized even though his teams were good at it, it gave up a lot of 3-pointers.
“I think giving up 3s is not healthy for your program,” Beilein said. “Teams can have a bad night, make 10 3s and I think you’re going to lose. So, I tried to really buy in to spending more time on man-to-man rather than trying to beat multiple defenses.”
Beilein said freshman forward Isaiah Livers didn’t practice on Wednesday and confirmed his initial thought that Livers suffered an ankle sprain early in the first half at Northwestern.
Beilein said the degree and severity of the injury will be known later this week.
“We have (Thursday) off, so he’ll do a lot of recovery and we’ll know a lot more on Friday and give it a try,” he said. “There’s a chance he can play this weekend (at Wisconsin). That’s the hope.”