Michigan basketball looks to 'stay the course' as familiar flaws surface in Vegas

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. At least, that’s the hope for the Wolverines after a shaky weekend in Sin City.

Following a narrow loss to Seton Hall, Michigan headed out west for the Roman Main Event tournament with a chance to prove the upset was merely an aberration.

Freshman forward Caleb Houstan (22) had 11 points and shot 3-for-16 from the field in Michigan's two games in Las Vegas over the weekend.

Instead, the Wolverines looked far from a top-five team and showed they are still a work in progress as they were hampered by familiar flaws and left town with more questions than answers.

“We’ve just got to stay the course,” fifth-year senior guard Eli Brooks said after Sunday’s 80-62 loss to Arizona at T-Mobile Arena. “We’ve got to buy into our habits. The formula worked in past years, so we just lock in to what coach is teaching and we apply it. It’s proven that we can win championships.”

Michigan had an opportunity to do that in the tournament’s title game, but was thoroughly outmatched by Arizona, who handed the Wolverines (3-2) their most lopsided nonconference loss since the 2016-17 season.

Defensive rebounding and turnovers were once again an issue. Michigan gave up 10 offensive boards for the fourth time this season and turned it over 15 times, with six players committing at least two turnovers and many coming from offensive fouls and unforced errors.

Outside shooting continued to be a glaring weakness. After going a dismal 3-for-15 from 3-point range against Seton Hall, Michigan followed that up by shooting 6-for-19 against UNLV and 1-for-14 against Arizona, dropping the team’s figure to 28.3% on the year.

Beyond Brooks (9-for-19) and grad transfer guard DeVante’ Jones (3-for-7), the rest of the Wolverines are shooting a combined 21.2% from deep (14-for-66). Freshman forward Caleb Houstan, who has been lauded for his stroke, is 1-for-14 on 3-pointers over the past three games.

The poor perimeter shooting limited the spacing and allowed Arizona to collapse the paint around sophomore center Hunter Dickinson. It also didn’t help that cohesion and communication were lacking as Arizona’s pressure had Michigan out of sync in the half court.

More: Michigan basketball tumbles in AP Top 25; MSU remains unranked

“At times we weren’t in our right spots offensively,” coach Juwan Howard said. “Maybe three guys knew what we were going to run and two guys didn’t, or four knew and one guy didn’t. We had a lot of mental breakdowns. … Mental fatigue was one of the things that settled in with our group.”

Added Brooks: “We’ve just got to take our time, take breaths. It sounds easy, but we’ve just got to relax more, let game come to us and run our sets.”

Aside from Brooks and Dickinson, there hasn’t been a third reliable scoring option. Senior forward Brandon Johns Jr. and Jones have been inconsistent. Johns’ confidence has been up and down, while Jones is still adjusting and has been limited by foul trouble at times.

Freshman forward Moussa Diabate and Houstan have both shown flashes. Diabate had a breakout game with 14 points against UNLV, but followed that up with four points against Arizona. Houstan’s shot was off in Las Vegas, tallying 11 points (3-for-16 shooting) in the two games.  

Defensively, the Wolverines lacked intensity and offered little resistance. The Wildcats picked apart Michigan’s ball screen defense and routinely got downhill, leading to plenty of floaters and lobs at the rim. Arizona racked up a whopping 54 points in the paint, with 20 points coming on layups and 18 points on dunks.

“They did a good job getting anything they wanted when they wanted,” Howard said. “We did not do a good job of getting deflections, having high hands. We didn’t do a good job of having a presence on the ball. That’s not the Michigan defense we’re accustomed to.”

Given the roster and rotation features numerous new faces, there were bound to be growing pains. That showed in Las Vegas, where Michigan proved it still has its work cut out putting all the pieces together.

“We will get back to the lab and see how we can get better because I trust this team and staff that we’re going to come back looking for solutions,” Howard said. “We’re a solution-based group and we’re going to figure out how to get better.”


Twitter: @jamesbhawkins