Minutes catching up to weary Wolverines
College Park, Md. — The players like to repeat the same line over and over, Marco Rubio style, saying fatigue is no excuse.
But, clearly, fatigue is catching up with Michigan.
Just ask John Beilein.
"They've been playing a lot of minutes," Beilein said.
For a number of reasons — chief among them, the extended absence of star guard Caris LeVert, who might just be done for the season — Michigan's starting five are being leaned on about as heavily as any lineup in the Big Ten.
Derrick Walton Jr. is averaging 35.9 minutes in conference play and Zak Irvin 35.7 minutes.
Both are in the top five for minutes, along with two players from Northwestern and Yogi Ferrell of Indiana.
Add that to the fact Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman is being counted on for much more than he's used to (30.6), starting every game LeVert has missed, and Duncan Robinson (30.8), too, and you may have an issue.
That's why with a rare extended break this week — Michigan played Tuesday, an uninspired loss to unranked Ohio State, ahead of Sunday's game at No. 6 Maryland (1 p.m., CBS) — Beilein told his starters to stay the heck out of the gym for a day-and-a-half, and especially Thursday.
He even told Robinson if he was spotted trying to shoot at Crisler Center on Thursday, he'd be staying home this weekend. Robinson got the message.
"One thing I do know, he needs to rest his legs if he's going to be a good shooter," Beilein said. "Hundreds of shots every day, that can catch up with you."
Robinson, a transfer from Division III Williams College, shot better than 60 percent from 3-point range in the nonconference season, but is at 35.6 percent in conference action.
In his last six games, he's just 7-for-26 (26.9 percent), with three 1-for-5's among those games.
Beilein worried recently that Robinson may be hitting a wall in his first year in Big Ten play, which is super-physical, on both sides of the ball. Being
Michigan's marked man, defenses have come after him, forcing him to be constantly on the move if he ever wants to see an open shot again. That's tiring.
Irvin, meanwhile, is coming off back surgery and wasn't able to condition properly this summer, and has struggled, off and on, with his shot.
Walton also is seeing a career high in minutes, and has his share of off-nights, too.
Irvin and Walton, fortunately for Michigan (19-8, 9-5 Big Ten), have rarely been both cold during the same game; usually when one's off, the other is on.
Not Tuesday against Ohio State, which humbled the on-the-bubble-Wolverines, 76-66.
For the most part, Michigan has been able to withstand the Levert lower-left leg injury and Spike Albrecht's season-ending recovery from hip surgeries, with signature wins over then-No. 3 Maryland and then-No. 18 Purdue in getting into the NCAA Tournament discussion, there's not much depth on the back end of the rotation. Aubrey Dawkins and Rickey Doyle are typically first off the bench, and then there's not much else to work with.
"We're also trying to win every game," Beilein said. "We want to get into the NCAA Tournament. We gotta win games by playing guys 38 minutes.
"You're sort of gambling."
Combine all those minutes with multiple games almost every week and middle-of-the-night return flights, and you can see how all that can catch up to you, even if you're a spring chicken at 19, 20, 21 years old and in the best shape you'll ever be in.
Michigan, by most accounts, is just inside the NCAA Tournament bubble, though not quite as comfortably after the loss at Ohio State, which, to be fair, is playing better these days. Michigan now gets Maryland, which has lost at home once since 2014 (just last week to Wisconsin), Wisconsin and Iowa in its last four games.
A win over Northwestern seems all that's guaranteed, and that would get Michigan to 10 Big Ten wins, and 20 overall — unless you don't count the season-opening victory over Division II Northern Michigan, which the Selection Committee doesn't.
The safest path into the Big Dance is two wins out of the next four — or Michigan might need a good showing in the Big Ten tournament.
So while the practice time might be getting trimmed, and potentially significantly, the minutes for Michigan's starting almost certainly will not.
The one member of Michigan's starting five who hasn't seemed overly affected by his increased workload is, of all people, Mark Donnal, who wasn't even on the radar before he scored a career-high 26 points in the Big Ten opener against Illinois, and has made a big impact on most games since, even providing some good post defense.
Donnal single-handedly solved Michigan's biggest issue, at the time, which was no frontcourt.
At this time, the biggest issue is the minutes — and the Wolverines are just going to have to suck it up.
"That's part of college basketball right now," Beilein said. "We've gotta fight through those things."
Michigan at Maryland
Tipoff: 1 p.m. Sunday, Xfinity Center, College Park, Md.
TV / radio: CBS / WWJ AM.
Records: Michigan 19-8, 9-5 Big Ten; No. 6 Maryland 22-5, 10-4 Big Ten.
Notable: Michigan won the first meeting this season, 70-67, in January at the Crisler Center.