Unbeaten Michigan looks to rest, regroup after sluggish stretch
Ann Arbor — Sophomore forward Isaiah Livers can attest to how rejuvenating the holiday break can be.
After an up-and-down start to his freshman season, Livers seemingly hit his stride following a nine-day layoff. He posted three straight double-digit scoring performances against Big Ten competition, a hot streak that led to him being moved into the starting lineup.
“Are there any college teams that don't get to go home for a little bit? If not, that's a killer,” Livers said earlier this week. “I can't imagine a full season without going home for four or five days, especially spending Christmas with your family.
“It's very important to not only rest your physical body, but rest your mindset. I think that's what happened me and Jordan (Poole) last year. We got to go back (home) and take a deep breath and come back and just let it all out.”
The No. 4 Wolverines all traveled back home following Saturday’s 71-50 victory over Air Force and will have four consecutive days off before they return to campus on Thursday.
And for a team that has been constantly grinding since its August trip overseas, there’s hope the time off will help everyone refresh, regroup and return to top form.
“I think that the trip to Spain…that's why we came out really strong but maybe why we've sort of plateaued a little bit right now,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “I don't think we've gone down, but I think we're not certainly playing like we were earlier in the year. I thought our effort was great (Saturday), but we're not shooting the ball like we were, and we will.”
Michigan opened the season with a roaring 8-0 start, clamping down and ripping apart the likes of Villanova, North Carolina and Purdue all while winning by an average scoring margin of 21.3 points.
Since then, the Wolverines have had to dodge a last-second shot in a two-point win at Northwestern, overcome a season-high 16 turnovers in an 11-point victory over South Carolina and stave off in-state foe Western Michigan for an eight-point win.
Then on Saturday, Michigan had to fight through another cold shooting start where it missed eight of its first nine shots and eight of its first nine 3-point attempts.
“We went in after that first half and Coach Beilein just tells us, 'Why are you guys thinking so much before you shoot the ball? Shoot the ball with confidence,'” Livers said. “When you get words from your head coach to say shoot the ball with confidence, you're going to see the ball go in.”
The Wolverines responded by shooting 52.9 percent (27-for-51) from the field and 39.1 percent (9-for-23) from 3-point range the rest of the way en route to the 21-point win. But until Michigan began to pull away midway through the second half, it was another underwhelming performance in a buy game against another less-than-formidable foe.
Add it all up — the sluggish starts, sloppy stretches and defensive struggles — and Michigan has won its last four games by an average of 10.5 points despite averaging nearly as many turnovers (10.8) as assists (12) and shooting a worse percentage (46.6 percent) from the floor than its opponents (47.5 percent).
But sustaining the same level of early-season dominance and intensity was unrealistic, especially during a stretch where Michigan has been sitting idle for six days between games. And according to Beilein, a lot of it has to do with how opponents are gunning for the Wolverines and throwing everything at them.
“We're scouting others and they're scouting us,” Beilein said. “They're finding out what did Western Michigan do? What did Holy Cross do? What did Air Force do?
“Villanova and Providence had one or two games of data. Now people have 12 games of data, but we're doing the same thing. We have to adjust all year long.”
While the tinkering will undoubtedly continue, Beilein is hoping the Christmas getaway will bring fresh legs and a renewed focus when the “real stuff” begins after Sunday’s nonconference finale against Binghamton.
“We’ve got to continue to improve on our habits and continue to get better each and every day,” redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews said. “I feel like we've been continuously able to get better throughout the season. Even though we might not perform at our best, I feel like, overall, we continue to get better.”