Chicago — A cloud of disappointment filled the Michigan locker room at the United Center.
Some players sat and stared off into the distance while others tried to explain what went wrong in Sunday’s loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament championship game.
Yet the silver lining is that by the time Thursday arrives, there will be a new beginning. Michigan, like 67 other teams, will start with a clean slate in the NCAA Tournament and control its own fate in the quest for a national title.
“This loss is fresh in our minds, but by (Monday) we’ve all got to let it go,” redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews said. “It’s nothing to harp on. We can learn from it, we can get mad at it, but it’s not going to do us no justice right now. It’s really time to focus on Montana and try to put our best foot forward.”
Despite how the weekend ended, Michigan’s confidence hasn’t waned, and the Wolverines feel like they’ve got a little bit of their mojo back after dismantling two tournament teams — Iowa and Minnesota — in consecutive days.
"We're right there and we can play with anybody in the country,” junior center Jon Teske said. “But now it's win or go home. Playing for the University of Michigan you always have that target on your back, so you've got to bring your ‘A’ game every game.”
The Wolverines (28-6) have done that for the most part, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some troubling trends and plaguing problems along the way for a team that’s hoping to pass March’s ultimate make-or-break test.
“We fight hard, but winning takes just about everything, winning at this level,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “You can win games. To win championships, you have to really do most of the right things. You're not ever going to have a game of perfection.
“We've got to learn from it, and hopefully we'll learn from it so that we go to the NCAA Tournament, we can play for a while in March again. If we don't, we'll be done. That's it.”
Here are three red flags for Michigan heading into the NCAA Tournament.
The Wolverines haven’t been in many games that have come down to the wire because more times than not the final few minutes have served as a mere formality.
But when they have, they’ve struggled. They were able to survive a scare and hang on for a two-point win at Northwestern. They unraveled in the final minute at Wisconsin where a three-point game turned into a 10-point loss. They blew a 10-point lead to Minnesota at home over the final five minutes before Matthews saved the day with a buzzer-beater.
In Sunday’s game, Michigan ran into trouble once again as it failed to get a stop in the final three minutes, went scoreless over the final 2:29 and came up empty on its final four possessions, with sophomore guard Jordan Poole, junior guard Zavier Simpson and freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis all missing shots.
Part of the problem, too, is that the Wolverines don’t have a closer they can turn to in clutch moments like they had in Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman last season and in Derrick Walton Jr. the year before that. Beilein said last month who gets the ball in late-game situations would be matchup-dependent and based on his gut feeling.
“We've done a really good job of not wasting possessions, and I think one of things that has been really good for us is we've had a lot of blowouts, which means we're really good,” Beilein said. “But those blowouts don't lead you to value them more and more.
“You've got to maximize your possessions, you've got to maximize your defensive possessions. It's just four or five possessions in that game are critical to win a championship game. …If you waste possessions on offense and defense in the NCAA Tournament, you're probably going to lose because everybody is pretty good.”
By the numbers, this season’s offense hasn’t dropped off significantly from a year ago. Last season, the Wolverines averaged 1.147 points per possession, shot 55.2 percent on 2-pointers and shot 35.7 percent on 3-pointers. This year, they’re averaging 1.155 points per possession while shooting 51.8 percent on 2-pointers and 35 percent on 3-pointers.
However, stagnant stretches, scoring droughts and bad one-on-one habits have made it seem like it has been much worse. Beilein acknowledged there are a few times each game the team doesn’t take good shots and some players have “ceilings” on their shot selection they're trying to push through.
And aside from the starting five, there’s not much firepower sitting on the bench outside of sophomore forward Isaiah Livers, although sophomore guard Eli Brooks had some promising moments during the Big Ten tournament.
On top of that, Michigan doesn’t have a go-to guy who remains calm when adversity hits and can be counted on to deliver when the team is desperate for a bucket. Brazdeikis has shown flashes at times, like he did at Northwestern and in the regular-season finale at Michigan State, but not at a consistent rate.
“You've got to take good shots,” Beilein said. “You can't just put your head down and say, 'I'll make something happen.’ We've gotten so much better at that and it's a process."
Poole has proven to be an enigma who is equally capable of unlocking the offense’s potential when he’s dialed in or holding it back with ill-advised shots and poor decision-making.
Throughout the season, there have been times where Poole has dazzled with his step-back moves and ability to wiggle in space. But then there have also been the head-scratching moments where he’s launched 3-pointers from deeper than they needed to be and put up a bad shot with plenty of time left in the shot clock.
"I think I've seen some really good improvements in his shot selection compared to some of the times earlier in his career,” Beilein said last week. “I think one of the biggest issues right now is logging so many minutes. It gets in his way a little bit. It affects his defense, and it affects his offense as well.”
Beilein added Poole is a better shooter than the 32.7 percent he shot from 3-point range in Big Ten play (Poole shot 50 percent on 3s in nonconference play), but he must work smarter to get better looks.
“With his shot selection sometimes and people keying on him, he's going to have to become really adept at (using) deception to get open,” Beilein said. “J.P. has to do better at tricking people to get open. That comes with time. Coaches aren't going to call a play to get you open. You’ve got to execute that play by being deceptive.”
No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 15 Montana
When: 9:20 p.m. Thursday
Where: Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines, Iowa
TV/radio: TNT/WWJ 950
Records: Michigan 28-6, Montana 26-8
Next up: Winner faces winner between No. 7 Nevada and No. 10 Florida