Michigan enters 'must-win' mode to regain momentum, keep NCAA Tournament hopes alive

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

East Lansing — As sophomore center Hunter Dickinson stood at the podium and answered questions from a throng of media in the Breslin Center press room, the lights above him dimmed.

It was a fitting scene considering where Michigan started to where it is now, with a once-bright outlook and prospects of repeating as Big Ten regular-season champions, reaching the NCAA Tournament, and making another deep postseason run fading with each passing game.

Michigan's Eli Brooks drives to the basket past Michigan State's Gabe Brown in the first half Saturday.

And just when it looked like the Wolverines were starting to turn a corner with a three-game win streak, they were turned back by No. 10 Michigan State and delivered a reality check in Saturday’s 83-67 loss.

“Coach said it: Every game from here on out is more or less a must-win for us,” Dickinson said. “There's very little gray area for us to have these kinds of hiccups that we've had.”

That’s not something you’d expect to hear from an All-American on a team that entered the season with a top-10 ranking and national title aspirations, especially near the midway point of the conference slate. But it speaks to where Michigan (10-8, 4-4 Big Ten) stands.

The Wolverines had a chance to make a statement and pick up a signature win. Instead, they were outplayed in the second half — which has been a recurring theme in most of their losses — and suffered another lopsided defeat in what’s been a seesaw season.

“We're not where we want to be right now,” Dickinson said. “We have a young team with high expectations. Sometimes you've got to temper expectations for the beginning of a season. Division I, high-major college basketball is hard. It's not easy. There's a reason why not everybody can succeed in it. Some of the guys are finding that it's a little bit harder than they thought.

“As a team, we need to continue to buy into what Coach (Juwan) Howard and the coaching staff is saying, teaching and just play together for 40 minutes.”

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That last part has been an issue. According to Dickinson, the team’s biggest problem is staying locked in and connected on defense for an entire game. That showed as the Spartans made nine 3-pointers and shot 55.4% from the field (31-for-56), which is the highest mark the Wolverines have allowed this season.

Michigan’s ball-screen defense wasn’t up to par, as Michigan State guard A.J. Hoggard continually got in the lane and sprayed the ball, dishing out 10 assists with one turnover. The Wolverines didn’t do much to stop the Spartans in transition, as they pushed the pace, kept getting open looks off makes or misses and racked up 28 fast-break points.

“That's not how we defend,” Howard said. “That's not what we practice. That's not our habits. It was disappointing to see that.”

Howard added the Wolverines didn’t play with the same level of energy and intensity over the final 20 minutes. He saw a similar drop-off on the offensive end, where Dickinson needed 19 shots and 10 free-throw attempts to put up 25 points but received little help as the 3-point shooting regressed (3-for-19). He called the second-half effort “unacceptable.”

As a result, whatever momentum Michigan had built heading into the rivalry matchup came to a crashing halt. And as the calendar flips to February, the Wolverines aren’t appearing in NCAA Tournament bracket projections by major outlets, like CBS Sports and ESPN, due to an underwhelming resume that features just one Quad I win and six losses by at least 10 points.

They’ll have plenty of chances to string together quality wins and change that, starting with Saturday’s trip to Purdue. After that are rematches with Purdue, Illinois and possibly Michigan State, as well as games against Ohio State and Wisconsin. But the Wolverines are running out of time and the margin for error is shrinking fast.

“The Big Ten is a very competitive conference and so is, just in general, college basketball because we had a really good non-conference schedule against high-level opponents,” Howard said. “Teams are good. Teams are older. Teams are physical, they're athletic, they're skilled. So are we, but we have to get better. That's a fact.

“It starts with me and it goes down to the staff and all the players, everyone. We all have got to step up.”

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins