Niyo: Stunted UM lacking senior savvy when needed most
Ann Arbor — This was Senior Night, and these were senior moments.
Only there weren’t any seniors in uniform for the Wolverines. They were all playing for other team.
And not surprisingly, the other team won going away Saturday night, as Michigan — an NCAA Tournament bubble team desperate for a win on its home court — was left deflated again by a more talented and far more experienced Iowa team in an 81-71 loss at Crisler Center.
This was Michigan’s best chance — if not its last one — to bolster its postseason credentials, facing the 15th-ranked Hawkeyes — losers of four in a row coming in — on their home floor in the regular-season finale.
But Senior Night carried a particularly melancholy feel for this Michigan team, with its two seniors in street clothes. Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht, the final 40 percent of a freshman class that played for a national championship in 2013 and nearly made another Final Four run as sophomores, are idled by injuries that forced them to miss the majority of this season.
Albrecht, a trusted guard and unquestioned leader, had to call it quits back in early December as he struggled to come back from offseason hip surgeries. LeVert, the team’s best player and would-be All-America candidate, finally shut it down last week after missing 15 of the last 16 games with an undisclosed lower-leg injury.
And as the Wolverines came out firing blanks Saturday, falling behind by double-digits early and never once regaining the lead, it was obvious there’s something irreplaceable missing here.
“I mean, we missed 'em in every moment,” Michigan coach John Beilein said, when asked about the seniors he’d lost before his team was ready. “We missed 'em in the beginning of games, in the locker rooms, in practice. But we had to get over that, and we’ve all been over that.”
They just can’t get past it. Not against the better teams in the Big Ten, which is what this Iowa team is, particularly when its best player is feeling loose and unencumbered by bracket worries or fashion sense.
With LeVert in a suit and tie, there was only one NBA player in uniform Saturday night.
That was Iowa senior Jarrod Uthoff, a Wooden Award finalist who came in as the Big Ten’s second-leading scorer — Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine is No. 1 — and left with 29 points, seven rebounds, three blocks and four steals.
Uthoff, a 6-foot-9 matchup nightmare for the Wolverines, shook off a recent shooting slump and buried his first two three-point attempts, quickly setting the tone for the night.
Midway through the first half, the score was Uthoff 13, Michigan 12.
“And when he’s playing like that,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said, “it changes everything for us.”
But for McCaffery, whose team was ranked No. 5 in the country a month ago after a 10-1 start in Big Ten play, what really has changed the last two seasons is his team’s maturity level. At least in a basketball sense, as he now dresses a starting lineup that includes a junior and four seniors who've won 88 games in four years.
One of them, point guard Mike Gesell, finished with a game-high 11 assists Saturday. Another, center Adam Woodbury, had a game-high 11 rebounds. Together, the four seniors combined for 56 points, including the Hawkeyes’ final 12 after the Wolverines had cut a 15-point deficit to 59-54 with 6:13 to play.
Frayed and frazzled
Meanwhile, after they’d whipped the spring break-depleted crowd into a frenzy, the Wolverines came unraveled. They had straight empty possessions — a quick-trigger miss from deep and a careless turnover by Zak Irvin, and an awkward driving attempt by Duncan Robinson — to effectively end the upset bid, and maybe their NCAA bid in the process.
“We just had a couple times where we needed to have more poise during that run,” Beilein said. “And I get it: Everyone was all jacked up and ready to go. But that’s not the way we need to respond.”
We’ll see how they respond now, as the No. 8 seed facing a fellow lightweight in the first round of the Big Ten tourney Thursday in Indianapolis. But a win there would do little to boost their NCAA stock, and it would lead to another must-win mismatch, facing top-seeded Indiana in a road environment Friday.
Beilein didn’t waste much time Saturday night trying to lobby for his team. Sure, they finished with a winning record in the conference. And yes, they boast a few quality wins over top-25 teams in Maryland, Purdue and Texas without any bonafide bad losses.
But they’re now 3-11 against RPI Top 100 teams, and Beilein and his players all know there’s not much air left in their bubble.
Robinson, who had another rough shooting night (2-for-9), said he “absolutely” thinks the Wolverines can still make the NCAA Tournament. But as for what it’ll take?
“Win,” he said. “Win the next couple games.”
That was the discussion among the players — LeVert and Albrecht included before the coaches had made their way back to the postgame locker room.
“The talk we just had is, we know it’s not over,” junior point guard Derrick Walton said. “We’re not too proud of the losses we have. But we’re gonna play this thing all the way out.”
All they can say for sure about what lies ahead, though, is that it’ll be an experience. And that’s something these Wolverines could use.