Niyo: Lack of depth catches up to Wolverines

John Niyo
The Detroit News

East Lansing —Michigan’s rivalry loss Sunday at Breslin Center wasn’t unexpected. It wasn’t a game that’ll define the Wolverines’ season, either, unless they let it.

But a week ago, John Beilein was asking for an “outlier.” Pleading for one, really. And less than 48 hours after Michigan’s coach caught a glimpse of one in a 30-point rout of Indiana, he saw another Sunday that highlighted his team’s biggest issue as it braces for the Big Ten stretch run.

Zak Irvin’s surprising no-show against the Spartans — scoreless in 36 minutes after missing two days of practice with the flu — only exposed the Wolverines’ distressing lack of depth nearly three months into the season.

And if there truly is strength in numbers, there is a weakness right now for Michigan — the bench was outscored 33-15 in Sunday’s 70-62 loss — that’s going to be hard to overcome in the final equation.

“They’re a little deeper than we are right now,” Beilein said Sunday.

Problem is, he can probably say the same most nights with this team. And on the road in a hostile environment, the concern is only magnified.

Sunday, the Wolverines actually did many of the things they often don’t do against the Spartans. They grabbed offensive rebounds with surprising frequency — 14 in all, or nearly twice their season average. They almost doubled up Michigan State in second-chance points, too. And while they didn’t get to the line as often as the Spartans did, they still matched them with 17 made free throws.

“They didn’t kill us on the boards like they have sometimes up here,” Beilein said. “And we did a great job, for the most part, on some of their primary guys.”

Reserves hurt Michigan

But their secondary guys were a different story, as Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was quick to note afterward, saying, “I thought we got a lot out of our bench.”

Freshman point guard Cassius Winston played his best game since the start of the Big Ten season, breaking down defenders and getting to the basket repeatedly, then sealing the game at the free-throw line.

‘Battle-tested’ MSU clamps down on Michigan

“Cassius was absolutely tremendous today,” Beilein said, “a big difference-maker.”

Likewise, sophomore Matt McQuaid shook out of a serious funk that probably dates back to November. It was his 3-pointer that gave Michigan State the lead for good with 5:20 gone in the second half Sunday. And it was McQuaid again who provided the first real cushion when he buried a corner 3 in transition to give the Spartans a 54-45 lead with exactly 10 minutes to play.

Beilein raved about the play of freshman star Miles Bridges (15 points, 13 rebounds) on that one, turning a steal into a fastbreak opportunity, but then having the court awareness not to end it with a turnover or a charging foul. Still, it was McQuaid firing confidently from in front of the Spartans’ bench that made it all count.

“It was only a matter of time before he started shooting better,” Beilein said of McQuaid, who was 6-of-26 from beyond the arc in his last 10 games, “and we made him healthy.”

Irvin wasn’t, obviously. And though he insisted he was good enough to go — “He told me at halftime, ‘Coach, I’m fine,’” Beilein said — he clearly wasn’t himself.

Irvin, who played 33 minutes in the win over Indiana late Thursday night, didn’t practice Friday or Saturday — didn’t even come to practice Friday — and he looked uncomfortable from the opening tip Sunday afternoon.

Irvin missed all six of his first-half shot attempts, a few of them badly, drawing jeers from the Izzone. (“Goose egg! Goose egg!”) After halftime, he wasn’t even looking for his shot, “and we didn’t really need to try to run anything through him,” said fellow senior Derrick Walton Jr., who was forced to carry the load himself.

“He didn’t feel well — he wasn’t 100 percent,” said Walton, who finished with 24 points, nine rebounds and five assists. “But it was about picking him up. He did as much as he could, he fought on the defensive end.”

No many options

But that Beilein felt he had no better option than Irvin seems inexplicable — if not indefensible — at this point in the season. Irvin went 0-for-8 from the field Sunday — his first scoreless game since the 2015-16 opener when he was coming off back surgery — and only managed two assists, two rebounds and a steal with three turnovers, yet he still played 36 minutes.

It didn’t help that guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman picked up two quick fouls and sat for most of the first half. (The would-be defensive stopper only played 15 minutes in all.) Or that Moritz Wagner and D.J. Wilson — two of Michigan’s best scoring options — struggled as Michigan State aggressively challenged the Wolverines’ high ball-screen actions, taking away the easy pick-and-pop opportunities.

Too often, the Wolverines reverted to bad habits and settled for less. When challenged, they still back down on many occasions. And with Irvin clearly out of sorts, that was sort of a problem Sunday against a Michigan State team that was desperate to win in front of a revved-up crowd. If not for Walton’s moxie, in fact, this could’ve gotten ugly.

“Other guys just have to fill that void,” Wilson said. “Whether it's myself, Muhammad, Duncan (Robinson), we have other guys, we have other options."

Do they, though? That’s debatable. Beilein’s team came into Sunday’s game ranked 318th nationally in bench minutes, according to KenPom statistics. And that’s fine if you’re UCLA or defending national champ Villanova. Or if this were one of Beilein’s previous Michigan teams with multiple future pros in the lineup.

But for this group to secure an NCAA spot — that might require five or six more wins — Michigan’s going to need somebody else to provide a spark. Somebody beyond the two senior guards, and probably the emerging Wagner or Wilson as well, though those two have plenty more to give.

It’s not likely to come from an emerging freshman (Xavier Simpson or even Jon Teske) at this point, the way it did with Wagner at tournament time last March. So it’ll have to be Robinson, the pure shooter who’s still hesitant to pull the trigger, or Abdur-Rahkman, who is too easily thrown off his game.

“I think we’ve got enough,” Walton insisted Sunday.

But if they really do, it's time to show it. @John_Niyo