Michigan basketball looks to 'sharpen up' as it struggles with turnovers

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
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When it comes to taking care of the ball and valuing possessions, Michigan has consistently been one of the top teams in the nation.

The Wolverines have ranked in the top 20 in the nation in turnover percentage each of the past eight seasons and 11th or better each of the past six seasons, according to KenPom.com. That includes last year’s mark of 15.3% under coach Juwan Howard, which ranked No. 11 among all Division I teams.

Grad transfer guard Mike Smith (12) has turned the ball over 14 times so far this season.

However, Michigan’s turnover numbers have been trending in the wrong direction this season. The Wolverines are averaging 13.1 turnovers per game and have committed more turnovers than their opponent in five of the seven contests. Among Big Ten teams, they also rank No. 11 in turnover percentage (18.3%) and No. 13 in turnover margin (minus-2.57 rating).

The numbers are worse when solely looking at conference play, even with the small sample size. Michigan is turning the ball over on 22.2% of its offensive possessions while averaging a league-worst 15.5 turnovers per game and ranking last in turnover margin — a minus-7.5 rating — by a considerable amount.

“I think that with more play, we'll sharpen up,” assistant coach Phil Martelli said Tuesday. “We can be a little bit dull — and I don't mean mentally dull — in our execution. I think as we play more, we're going to see that number go down. But that number is cause for concern.”

In Michigan’s first two Big Ten contests, the Wolverines turned the ball over nearly twice as much as their opponent. They finished with 16 turnovers against Penn State and 15 turnovers against Nebraska, while the Nittany Lions and Cornhuskers each turned it over eight times.

Penn State scored 18 points off those giveaways in Michigan’s 62-58 win, while Nebraska converted them into 10 points in Michigan’s 80-69 victory.

“Coming out of the Nebraska game with 15 turnovers, we're not going to survive in the Big Ten and most especially on the road (with that many),” Martelli said.

There hasn’t been one main culprit for the Wolverines. Five players committed multiple turnovers against Penn State, including grad transfer guard Mike Smith (three) and junior forward Brandon Johns Jr. (four).

Then against Nebraska, three Wolverines turned it over multiple times, with freshman center Hunter Dickinson (five turnovers) accounting for a third of the Michigan’s total. Dickinson took the blame for the team’s high number, saying he felt “a little rushed” against Nebraska’s double-teams and needs to slow down.

More: Michigan's 'DMV Boys' ready to show Maryland what it's missing

Freshman forward Terrance Williams II said ball security has been one of the main talking points in recent practices, along with offensive rebounding.

"That has been a very big focus,” Williams said. “Coach has been stressing on that a lot. Every time we have our transition drills or we play five-on-five with the scout team, we always track turnovers.

“However many turnovers we have, we usually run a couple up-and-backs because that could be a big factor in the game between winning and losing. Coach Howard has definitely made that an emphasis and we're going to continue to work on that.”

Michigan has been able to overcome the turnovers by shooting at least 44% from the floor in every game and being efficient on both ends. The Wolverines rank in the top 20 nationally in effective field-goal percentage on offense (58%; 13th) and defense (42.5%; 16th).

Martelli noted when the shots aren’t falling, though, one way to combat that is to get more shots up. And one way to do that is to cut down on turnovers.

On the flip side, another way is to generate more opportunities off opponent’s turnovers, something Michigan hasn’t done at a high rate. The Wolverines are forcing an average of 10.6 turnovers per game, a mark that ranks No. 317 in the country.

"I feel like we can get in passing lanes a little bit more,” Williams said. “I feel like usually we're sagged back off our man a little bit too much. That just comes with guarding one-on-one and being in help side positioning.

“Maybe we can't get as many steals or cause as many turnovers as we can, but I feel like we're guarding the ball one-on-one very well. The deflections and the steals are going to come.”

Michigan in mourning

Donnie Kirksey, a prominent fixture in the Chicago basketball community and an influential figure in Howard’s life, died on Monday of complications related to COVID-19, according to The Chicago Tribune. He was 57.

Kirksey coached at multiple high schools and colleges in the Chicago area throughout his decades-long career, including Howard’s alma mater Chicago Vocational Career Academy. As Howard turned into one of the top prep prospects in the nation, Kirksey was an assistant coach at Vocational who mentored him and helped manage his recruitment.

The two remained close throughout Howard’s playing days at Michigan and in the NBA and into his coaching career. Howard’s wife, Jenine, called Kirksey a “brother” to Howard and said he was the godfather to their son Jace, who is a freshman on the Michigan basketball team.

“What a champion for kids,” Martelli said. “There's a lot of pettiness that goes on in basketball, and people pick and poke at each other in kind of a childish way. But Donnie is the one guy, from my contacts on the East Coast to the people in Chicago to the people around the Michigan program, the tribute to him is that he's been called and was not just a good guy but a great guy.”

No. 16 Michigan at Maryland

Tip-off: 8 p.m. Thursday, Xfinity Center, College Park, Md.

TV/radio: ESPN/950

Records: Michigan 7-0, 2-0 Big Ten; Maryland 6-3, 1-2

Outlook: The New Year’s Eve matchup got pushed back one hour than previously scheduled on Tuesday night. … Michigan has won four of the past five meetings between the teams. … Junior guard Eric Ayala (14.7 points) paces a Maryland team that’s looking for its second consecutive win over a ranked opponent after upsetting No. 6 Wisconsin, 70-64, on Monday.

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins

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