Ann Arbor — Three months and 18 games into the season, Michigan coach Juwan Howard never thought he’d still be talking about his team’s lack of communication.
But that’s exactly what Howard found himself doing after he witnessed numerous defensive breakdowns and the Wolverines failed to talk the talk in Wednesday’s 72-63 loss to Penn State at Crisler Center.
"It's very challenging to come up here and have to talk about that we're having a lack of communication and we're not communicating enough,” Howard said. “I don't understand why.
“It's too late in the season to have to beg our guys to communicate on defense. And not just on the defensive end, on the offensive end, too.”
Howard said off the court the players are always speaking to one another and he can sometimes hear them well outside the locker room. He doesn’t see them on their phones sending texts to the person who is standing right next to them. They get along. They enjoy playing with one another.
That’s what makes it all the more frustrating when Howard sees that it’s not translating onto the court.
“It's a lost art in the game and we have to bring it back,” Howard said. “Yes, I'm old-school, but in order for us to forge ahead and move forward and improve, communication has to be a part of the process.
“That is surprising that some of our guys don't like talking on defense or assume a player knows exactly what the other opponent is going to do and assume that your teammate knows that he's got to pick him up on the defensive end. There's a lot of guessing going on and I just don't understand it."
It was an issue that began in the early stages of the game. On Penn State’s second possession, Brandon Johns Jr. and Zavier Simpson both stayed with the ball-handler off a screen. The miscommunication led to Lamar Stevens burying an open catch-and-shoot 3-pointer.
Later in the half, Simpson sagged into the paint below a screen and gave up an open look to Myreon Jones, Penn State’s top shooter. The miscue resulted in a weak contest from Franz Wagner and one of Jones’ three made 3-pointers.
Then in the second half, another botched switch led to nobody picking up Penn State’s Curtis Jones Jr., who was left all alone and knocked down a deep ball for three of his 18 second-half points.
By the end of it, Penn State made eight 3-pointers, shot 48.2 percent (27-for-56) from the field and became the sixth Big Ten opponent to make at least 45 percent of its field-goal attempts against Michigan.
"They got too many open looks,” Howard said. “We talk about that we have to communicate on defense, be physical, don't be surprised. We have a great scouting report. We watch film on every opponent. We see guys' tendencies as well as their strengths and who can shoot the ball and where they shoot the ball from, so there are no surprises.
“I don't understand why guys get open looks. It tells me because of lack of communication on switching. At times I thought we were lazy on our switches. We switch up on shooters, not back. Or (we’re) assuming a guy has the man and unfortunately that particular player is not guarding him. Or if your hand is down versus a shooter, for example, Curtis Jones, who was just lighting us up and shot it in our face, that's unacceptable. You have to own it. You've got to be able to do your job.”
Like Howard, junior guard Eli Brooks said Penn State got “way too many” clean looks throughout the contest because of missed assignments that could’ve been cleaned up if more guys were vocal and calling out switches.
While Brooks also cited a lack of energy and the need for more guys to adjust their personality to “bring fire,” he said talking on the court is something that should already be ingrained in each player.
"That's something you should do no matter what,” Brooks said. “You're a basketball player. At the end of the day, you've been doing it your whole life.”
Johns agreed that Michigan’s communication could’ve been better, especially on the defensive end. He said the team executes well in practice, but the carryover into games isn’t correlating.
"I think some people just get in their heads or everybody gets in their own head and it causes us to stop talking,” Johns said. “I think when we're in the hardships of the game we have to be consistent with talking.
“We're not executing as much as we should be. I think that's one of our big problems.”
And it’s a problem a scuffling Michigan squad will need to fix quick with a hot Illinois team riding a five-game win streak into town this weekend.
"We can't have the same performance on the defensive end and expect that Illinois is going to feel sorry for us,” Howard said. “Each and every guy, including myself, has to look themselves in the mirror and see how can I get better when I walk in the door tomorrow.”