Wolverines to focus on toughening up after loss to Minnesota

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Fifth-year senior guard Eli Brooks has been around the block a time or two.

He’s played in 70 Big Ten games throughout his Michigan career. He’s been a part of teams that have won a conference tournament and regular-season championship. He knows what it takes to succeed in one of the tougher leagues in the nation.  

He also knows that the type of effort the Wolverines played with in Saturday’s Big Ten home opener won’t cut it if they want to seriously contend for the conference crown.

“(We need to be) more physical,” Brooks said after the 75-65 loss to Minnesota. “This is not high school basketball. This is not a different conference. The Big Ten is about physicality. You get that every single night, so (we need to) embrace that challenge.”

Michigan guard Eli Brooks (55) drives on Minnesota forward Eric Curry (1) in the second half.

According to Brooks, the Wolverines failed to do that, particularly in the second half when the Golden Gophers shot a staggering 64% from the field (16-for-25) and had their way with them.

The Wolverines struggled to stay in front of their man and guard the Gophers off the dribble. They rarely threw the timing off on Minnesota’s offensive sets. They couldn’t wear down an opponent that leaned heavily on its starting five.

“I don't think we were the most physical team out there,” Brooks said. “We let them move freely and that's one of our key points as a defense, making them feel us. We didn't do that.

“We've got to start hitting people. I mean, if they call a foul, then they call a foul. But we need to hit people.”

When Michigan took a 36-32 lead into the break, Minnesota coach Ben Johnson delivered a simple message to his team — be the aggressor in the second half. That was the Gophers’ sole focus and it showed.

Minnesota popped Michigan with a 15-4 blow after halftime to put the Wolverines on their heels. Granted, the Gophers hit some tough shots during the run — Minnesota guard Payton Willis made a contested 3-pointer over freshman forward Moussa Diabate — but they also had some easy ones, with Willis flying past sophomore center Hunter Dickinson and Diabate for a pair of layups.

“I felt like we weren't ready to start the (second) half, mentally or physically,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “There were too many blow byes off the ball screen where a guy ends up switching and we have one of our bigger guys switching onto a perimeter (player) and not doing a good job of talking and getting our matchups. They were able to take advantage of that.”

Things only got worse for the Wolverines once Minnesota’s Jamison Battle started to heat up. He was able to get to his spots with little resistance and lit up the defense, single-handedly outscoring Michigan 15-14 over the first 13-plus minutes of the half.

During an 11-0 flurry that gave Minnesota a 16-point lead, Battle continued to use screens to get switches and the matchups he wanted. He made Michigan pay for a poor closeout, driving by the defender with ease for an and-1 layup.

Eventually it got to the point where Howard made the decision to switch to a zone because the team’s man-to-man defense wasn’t working and putting any pressure on Minnesota.

When asked about Brooks’ comment on the team’s lack of physicality, Howard seemed to share some of the same frustration.

“That's something that we will definitely identify and see how we can improve,” Howard said, “because you definitely have to have a certain type of grit about you if want to play in the Big Ten.”

In addition to playing with more edge and toughness, Brooks noted the Wolverines need to do a better job of being in the right position and trusting their teammates around them on the floor.

Dickinson added the help defense and communication was lacking. The back end of the defense wasn’t there when a defender got beat on a drive to the rim.

“As a team, defensively, we could have come out with more energy not just with our bodies, but I think with our mouths as well, trying to talk ourselves into the right spots,” Dickinson said. “I think we need to be not only more physical but also be mentally smarter on the defensive end.”

With a week wait before their next game and three more nonconference contests on their December schedule, the Wolverines will have time to address some of the issues.

But Saturday's loss also gave them plenty to chew on before Big Ten play picks back up after the new year.

“We know there's no championships being had in December. With that said, there is some type of haste to try to get better and not (post) another 4-4 record in an eight-game stretch,” Dickinson said. “Obviously, we think we're better than what we're showing out there. It’s just a matter of us continuing to buy into the game plan and what the coaches are telling us offensively and defensively.”


Twitter: @jamesbhawkins