East Lansing — This wasn’t their best shot.
Not with Isaiah Livers on the visitors’ bench in a sweatsuit. Not with Cassius Winston wearing a Superman cape once again. Not with Michigan State students back from break and ready to roar inside the Breslin Center. And certainly not with Juwan Howard’s presence injecting more adrenaline into a rivalry that already carried plenty for Tom Izzo and the Spartans.
Still, it was a shot.
And as Michigan’s players made their way to the team bus Sunday afternoon, headed home after an 87-69 loss to the Spartans, they knew they’d taken another pass. Knew, too, what they’d see when they gathered to watch film a day later at practice back in Ann Arbor.
As confident as this team looked in November — or even a few weeks ago after a 100-point outburst in its Big Ten opener against Iowa and a near-miss in overtime against Oregon — Michigan seemed unsure when it stepped into enemy territory Sunday. And by the time the game was over, the Wolverines were pretty sure that was part of the problem. Beyond the glaring defensive breakdowns and the undeniably short bench, there was that too-long pause that frequently set them up to fail.
“I think we hesitate a lot with threes, and second-guess ourselves, which kind of helps us to miss ‘em,” said sophomore Brandon Johns Jr., who made his second career start in place of the injured Livers. “It’s a mental thing, so we’ve just got to stay mentally strong, mentally composed. And the more we do that, the more our shots will fall.”
'Time to move forward'
That they didn’t Sunday was not a complete surprise. Everyone knew the sizzling shooting display we saw from Michigan in the Bahamas around Thanksgiving wasn’t sustainable. But playing without their most reliable scorer, the Wolverines shot just 5-of-23 from three-point range against the Spartans, averaged less than a point per possession and trailed by double digits for more than half the game.
Michigan now has lost four of its last seven, including both of its road games in Big Ten play, and Howard’s team is facing its first true adversity this season with Livers still sidelined with a groin injury. Thursday night’s matchup against Purdue at the Crisler Center suddenly feels like a must-win game with road dates at Minnesota and Iowa up next and Michigan effectively three games behind first-place Michigan State in the league standings.
“We’re not happy about the loss, but we don’t have time to feel sorry for ourselves,” assistant coach Saddi Washington said after Sunday’s loss. “It’s time to learn from it and move forward.”
What we learned, though, is what we already knew. Michigan’s margin for error isn’t what it was the last few years under John Beilein, and as good a player — and leader — as senior point guard Zavier Simpson is, he can’t carry a team in the same way Winston does offensively for Izzo.
Simpson did what he could Sunday, finishing with 14 points, eight assists, five rebounds and a steal. But his 14 points came on 18 shots while Winston poured in a career-high 32 on 19 field-goal attempts and had a hand in 20 of Michigan State’s 28 made baskets. Without Livers on the floor, Michigan State’s help defense stymied Simpson’s ball-screen efficiency, and his pass-outs rarely hurt the Spartans because the close-outs were strong and the shooters weren’t ready — or willing.
Johns missed his first corner three, then passed up the next few that came his way. Franz Wagner hit one in each half but the freshman still doesn't seem all that comfortable on the court. Eli Brooks, meanwhile, finished with just five attempts and two points in 36 minutes on the court. And while he’s shooting nearly 44 percent from three-point range this season, he’s 0-for-6 on threes in nearly 90 minutes of playing time spread over Michigan’s three true road games this season. As a team, the Wolverines are 11-for-60 from behind the arc in those games.
“You’re away from home, but that’s no excuse,” said Jon Teske, whose reliable post play also was negated by foul trouble Sunday. "We've just got to be confident in the shots we take. We've got to trust that those shots will go in. (Assistant coach Phil) Martelli said we had a lot of shots in the first half and ‘How many of those shots do you trust to go in or expect to go in? Or are you just kind of shooting it?’ We've just got to have the mindset that ‘This shot is going to go in,’ regardless if it does or doesn't.”
If it doesn’t, there’ll be consequences, though. Because this Michigan team isn’t as strong defensively as recent editions.
More from everybody
The Wolverines struggled mightily with their transition defense Sunday, which is a recipe for disaster against Winston and the Spartans. And whether it was going with a two-big lineup — awkwardly so, at times — or Michigan’s guards simply getting lost trying to chase the All-American point guard, it was uncharacteristic for the Wolverines to have so many lapses.
“Unfortunately for us, we didn’t do a good job communicating on the open man and where he was,” Howard said. “That’s why they were able to score some of those threes in transition. There’s no excuses for that. We prepared for it. We just didn’t do it.”
In the halfcourt, they did just about everything, though most of it didn’t work all that well in trying to defend Winston in ball-screen actions. Michigan had a week to prepare and Martelli said Howard used that extra time to essentially hold a mini-camp, adding new wrinkles to the drop coverage they’d utilized the first two months of the season.
Analytics suggest that’s the best approach, but Winston scored on a variety of pull-up jumpers and runners against a sagging second defender. So Michigan then tried hedging, to no avail. Teske was in foul trouble and the Wolverines simply don’t have the kind of length to bother Winston in those situations.
“He played a great game,” Johns said. “He scored on all three levels and he just has that mentality, like he’s the best player on the court.”
Simpson does, too. But Michigan’s going to need more than that. Frankly, they're going to need more from everybody, because that's the only way they're going to keep pace with the better teams they'll face from here on out.
“We have to have a balance,” Martelli said. “When we look good, it’s balanced."
When they don’t, it looks like it did Sunday. But after seeing that, Martelli also had this to say about what lies ahead for the Wolverines.
"Confidence is a big deal, too, and they couldn't play for a better guy in terms of that," he added, nodding down the hallway where Howard was busy catching up with former MSU star Eric Snow and his son, Darius, an incoming football recruit. "I mean, he exudes it for them. And now they have to take that in."