There are no bad wins in the Big Ten but Michigan continued to look like a team searching for its former self while limping past Penn State on Sunday afternoon. The Wolverines’ early season confidence and swagger is gone and a struggling defense becomes a more pressing concern with every passing game.
Michigan is two games out of first place and still has the opportunity to host both teams that it’s chasing in the standings. The Wolverines have been nearly flawless at home over the past two seasons and are capable of winning out – if they can find their early season form.
But despite all of the opportunity ahead, it’s hard not to ask the obvious question: Does Michigan still have that extra gear that was apparent throughout the first two thirds of the season or has it been sapped away by a grueling two week stretch? That confidence isn’t going to return overnight but a rematch against Michigan State awaits in two weeks’ time. A meager eight point win against the league’s worst team isn’t going to accelerate the recovery process but it’s a step, ever so small, in the right direction.
Michigan’s offensive efficiency improved exponentially over the course of 40 minutes but its defense followed an inverse trajectory. After both teams managed roughly a point per possession in a first half that felt like it was dominated by Penn State, Michigan’s offense exploded for 1.38 points per trip in the second half. But the Wolverine defense sputtered and allowed Penn State, the least productive offense in the Big Ten, to score 1.14 points per trip in the second 20 minutes.
Michigan’s offense has struggled at times over the last couple weeks but offensive regression is likely to reduce the Wolverines from the best offense in the country to one of the top five offenses in the country. It’s Michigan’s defensive struggles over the last five games are the more serious, mission critical concern.
The Wolverines have now surrendered 363 points in their last 332 defensive possessions over a five game stretch included games against the conference’s 1st, 3rd, 5th, 9th and 12th best offenses. When extrapolated to the entire Big Ten season, that 1.09 points per possession allowed would rank second to the last in the conference – just a hair better of Northwestern.
Michigan’s defensive woes continued to originate around the basket, as the league’s worst two point defense failed to improve even against the worst two point offense in the conference. Penn State made 49 percent of its twos on the day and seemed to have endless opportunities around the basket. The Wolverines’ aggressive overplayed, high hedge on the pick-and-roll did generate a few turnovers, which led to 10 points, but it also led to a number of wide open layups at the hoop. Sasa Borovnjak was particularly effective slipping to the hoop, scoring 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting. Although neither DJ Newbill or Jermaine Marshall had particularly efficient offensive performances, Michigan struggled to stop either player’s dribble penetration.
The offense was flat from the opening tip off but rounded into form steadily. Penn State is far from the best the Big Ten has to offer defensively, but Michigan’s 1.17 points per trip was the second best offensive output the Nittany Lions have allowed in Big Ten play. Michigan shot 35 free throws to 49 field goals, a higher proportion of FTAs to FGAs than we’ve seen Michigan accumulate since February of 2011. The 35 free throw were more than the 26 that Michigan attempted in the last four games combined but it’s probably safe to say that has more to do with a Penn State team that fouls more than anyone in the country than a new found ability of the Wolverines to get to the charity stripe.
Despite its efficiency, Michigan’s offensive production was strikingly unbalanced. Burke, Robinson and Stauskas combined for 86% of Michigan’s scoring and nine of 12 assists. The trio combined to go 20-of-31 from the floor (73% effective field goal percentage) and 23-of-26 at the free throw line while their teammates went just 3-of-18 from the floor and 4-of-9 at the line. Michigan’s inside players – Morgan, McGary, Bielfeldt and Horford – didn’t score combined for 0-of-5 shooting with three turnovers to six rebounds at the five position while Tim Hardaway Jr. was unable to snap out of his off week. Unbalanced offense might not be ideal but it’s tough to complain Michigan’s most efficient players – Burke, Robinson and Stauskas – have the most opportunities and make the most of them.
Michigan has a week of rest before hosting Illinois next Sunday. The Wolverines plan to take the day off on Monday and Thursday with a “mini-camp” sandwiched between. The week off should provide a valuable opportunity for both rest and defensive repetitions before Michigan hosts an Illinois team trending in the right direction down the stretch.
- Trey Burke: Burke seems to redefine flawless offense every time he takes the floor. 29 points on 9-of-16 (3-4 3pt) shooting with five assists and zero turnovers is pretty close to perfect. Burke scored at the hoop, hit his threes, got to the free throw line, and hit challenged pull-ups in the mid-range. There wasn’t really anything else you could ask for from the sophomore point guard offensively. However, even Burke has suffered at times on the defensive end of the floor. Despite a pair of steals, Burke had a couple mental lapses which cost easy buckets on the defensive end.
- Tim Hardaway Jr.: Over the last four games Hardaway has gone from playing nearly perfect basketball against Ohio State and Wisconsin to dreadful basketball against Michigan State and Penn State. In many ways Hardaway’s career has been defined by radical up and down swings and the Wolverines will need him to snap out of his funk to make a run both at the Big Ten title or in March.
- Nik Stauskas: Stauskas had a sound offensive game, scoring 18 points on 5-of-9 (2-6 3pt) shooting with four assists to two turnovers, despite a subpar three point shooting game. He was aggressive attacking the basket and was very successful – 6 FTA and perfect 3-of-3 2 point shooting. His defense remains a concern. Penn State attempted to isolate him quite a bit and had a fair amount of success. Stauskas didn’t commit a foul and commits less than 1 foul per 40 minutes – top five nationally. Beilein’s commented that “If you only had one foul in that game, you had more in you” in his post game and that rings true for Stauskas defensively.
- Glenn Robinson III: A 21 point and 10 rebound double double with perfect shooting from the field is a good way to get out of a slump. Yes, five of Robinson’s six makes were dunks but it was great to see Robinson more aggressive on the boards and getting to the free throw line. His 11 free throw attempts on the game matched his total in the last nine games combined. Robinson isn’t going to magically begin to create his own offense over the final month of the season but if he plays with this sort of energy, especially on the glass, he’ll find his way to production.
- Mitch McGary: McGary’s hustle, effort and vision continues to be a game changer but it’s also rough around the edges. McGary struggled to finish (0-4) but made three great plays which led to baskets or free throws with his passing. However throwing possessions away (2 turnovers, one mid-range airball) begin to offset that positive play. Still, McGary’s energy was pivotal in Michigan tying the game in the first half, he threw a great backdoor pass, a no look pass and dove on the floor to start a fast break.
- Jordan Morgan: Morgan played just seven minutes and looked far from healthy, committing three fouls and a turnover and missing a layup in his time on the floor. Morgan wants to play, Michigan needs him to play, but it doesn’t do any good if he’s not close to 100 percent.
- Jon Horford: Horford needs stronger hands around the basket as he had a couple of rebounds stripped out his hands. On one occasion he recovered with an emphatic block that started a fast break. He did have two steals and a block in 16 minutes but picked up two fouls and failed to record a field goal attempt.
- Matt Vogrich: Vogrich checked in and let up a pair of three pointers almost immediately but it was nice to see him get fouled and knock down both free throws.
- Caris LeVert: LeVert played nine minutes and was instrumental in forcing an early shot clock violation with strong man defense. However, he missed both field goal attempts and tweaked his ankle, limiting his second half playing time.