Dearth of veteran playmakers leaves Michigan in lurch
Columbus, Ohio — It has become a glaring problem for Michigan over the last two weeks.
When the game is starting to slip away, there’s no one to turn to save the day.
It happened against LSU in the Maui Invitational when Michigan led by nine points with 5:11 remaining, only to lose 77-75.
It happened at North Carolina in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge when a critical first-half swing snowballed into a 14-point halftime deficit it could never recover from in an 86-71 trouncing.
And it happened once again Monday night when Ohio State used a 16-0 flurry to wipe out Michigan’s 20-point lead and a 15-2 run over the final five minutes to hand the Wolverines a deflating 71-62 loss.
“We couldn't make a basket or we couldn't make a really bright play during that time,” Michigan coach John Beilein lamented about his team’s abysmal second-half performance against the Buckeyes. “When things got a little tough, we really had trouble stepping up. It's a big area we got to work at.
“We got to somehow get them to understand the importance of at that time that people do embrace that part of the game and get it done, but also other times in the game when there are simple plays to be made, we make them. Those are big, big changing moments for the game. I’m disappointed for our team and disappointed at some of our players who are better than they played in that second half.”
That disappointment begins and ends with Michigan’s veterans: fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson, senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and junior center Moritz Wagner, who combined for four points and three turnovers with 0-for-15 shooting in the final 20 minutes.
Throw in redshirt sophomore wing Charles Matthews and Michigan’s four leading scorers were 1-for-20 from the field with four turnovers during the second-half meltdown.
The only offense Abdur-Rahkman and Wagner could muster were two free throws apiece that put Michigan up 60-56 with 4:54 to play, a lead that was short-lived and somewhat surprising considering the Wolverines scored just 19 points and shot 17.2 percent (5-for-29) over the final 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, Matthews was responsible for Michigan’s only made field goal in the final eight minutes on a dunk with 16 seconds left, and one of the team’s five made shots. Freshmen Eli Brooks and Jordan Poole and sophomores Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske accounted for the other four made baskets.
“I called every number I could call and it didn’t happen,” Beilein said.
Call it growing pains. Call it a teaching lesson. Call it another harsh dose of reality. But moving forward, somebody has eventually got to answer the call.
And until it happens, the lack of a seasoned savior is going to continue to bite the Wolverines, like it already has three times.
“This is something that's going to be a journey all year for us until we grow our young kids and our veterans embrace their new roles as being the guys — being a guy that's got to make a shot, that's got to make a play at a certain time,” Beilein said.
Robinson’s shooting funk continued with a 1-for-7 performance, including 1-for-5 on 3-pointers. Over the past three games, he’s shooting 17.4 percent (4-for-23) from the field and 21 percent (4-for-19) from 3-point range.
Robinson said his stroke hasn’t changed and chalked it up to the ebbs and flows of the season, while Beilein said the condensed schedule has likely played a role.
"With shooters we see it a lot. They'll go in, they'll go out,” Beilein said. “Probably his legs are tired from 10 games in 24 days.”
Like Robinson, Matthews has struggled the past three games with the exception of his hot start at North Carolina. He finished with a season-low four points on 2-for-9 shooting against Ohio State one game after foul trouble limited him to eight points and a season-low 19 minutes against Indiana.
According to Beilein, Matthews is simply trying to do too much when he’s on the floor.
“He's trying to be a physical player when he's as quick and athletic as anybody," Beilein said. "He's trying to play like I would play…Eurostepping and tricking people when he's so quick. We got to just keep working on him to get him to get to the basket quickly, and shoot it when he's open and pass it when he's not.”
Despite Michigan’s offensive troubles, Beilein opted to go with Simpson over Brooks at point guard for the final 14:26 of the game for defensive purposes.
“We couldn't stop them defensively and frankly he's better than the other two defensively,” Beilein said. “I thought he could just run our offense and we'd get some production from our other guys, but we couldn't stop them and it wasn't necessarily his man.”
Simpson shot 4-for-5 from the field and finished with 11 points, four rebounds, an assist and a turnover in 20 minutes. Brooks, who got the start once again, was 3-for-5 from the field and had eight points, one assist and one turnover in 13 minutes.
It was the first time since Michigan's third game against Southern Miss that Simpson received more playing time than Brooks.
…After scoring a career-high 19 points against Indiana, freshman guard Jordan Poole played just eight minutes against Ohio State. He finished with five points and was the fifth player of the bench behind Jon Teske, Isaiah Livers, Ibi Watson and Simpson.