A week ago, Michigan’s season was running smoothly. The Wolverines had accomplished about as much as anyone could have asked for in early season play. They knocked off Oregon and had just beaten Syracuse to bounce back from a close loss to Villanova. But in a matter of days the wheels have fallen off quicker than anyone could imagined.
First the Wolverines lost at home to NJIT. Now just three days later, Eastern Michigan walked out of the Crisler Center with a victory.
The upset followed a similar script to Saturday’s shocker. The Wolverines got out to a modest early lead, but were never able to extend it and allowed Eastern Michigan to hang around. Against NJIT, Michigan’s unraveling was its mediocre defense. Tonight, it was the sheer inability to generate any offense against EMU’s zone-defense.
The Wolverines bricked themselves into a close game they didn’t want and provided Eastern Michigan with more life with every miss. A Michigan offense that has looked so lethal over the past two seasons — and even for stretches this season — looked rudderless in the first half, failing to make a field goal for nearly a 14 minute stretch in the first half.
Despite playing its worst offense in years, Michigan still had chances to win the game down the stretch. The Wolverines had five tries to tie the game in the final 2:30 while trailing by a single possession, but were never able to capitalize and Eastern Michigan escaped with the win.
This was Michigan’s worst offensive performance since February 23rd, 2010 when it managed just 44 points in 63 possessions in a home loss to Illinois.
Eastern Michigan befuddled Michigan’s offense by pushing the wings of the 2-3 zone high and applying swarming pressure. At times the EMU zone almost looked like a 4-1 as the wings spent the majority of their time well above the free throw line. This worked because Michigan’s small guards couldn’t pass over the high-pressure and because the Wolverines sorely lack a reliable finisher to catch and finish on the other end.
The Wolverines tried to make adjustments, but they just didn’t work. Michigan’s primary adjustment in the second half was to drive into the middle of the zone and then look for drop off passes to the big man. That resulted in a couple of easy baskets, but a lot more errant and dropped passes and a 22% turnover rate. Eastern Michigan’s preparation and execution of its game plan was masterful and Rob Murphy deserves all the credit of the world for putting the Syracuse film to work and out-coaching Beilein.
Perhaps most jarring was Michigan’s inability to get the sort of baskets that helped turn the Syracuse game: transition and second chance points. The Wolverines rebounded a woeful 7% of their misses and recorded just two fast break points.
How bad was Michigan’s offense? Not a single Wolverine made more than four shots or scored more than 10 points.
Eastern Michigan’s offense wasn’t much better. This was Michigan’s best defensive game of the year, which only magnifies how bad the Wolverine offense was. The Eagles shot 33% on twos and 32% on threes for a 39% eFG% while giving the ball away on 28% of their offensive possessions – and they still won the game.
Losing back-to-back games, at home, to NJIT and Eastern Michigan isn’t a learning experience – it’s a major red flag.
The talk of growing from losses and necessary learning experiences for this young team is over. Losing back-to-back games, at home, to NJIT and Eastern Michigan isn’t a learning experience – it’s a major red flag. That’s a radical step backward for a program that had only lost four home games over the past three seasons.
Michigan has a laundry list of flaws to fix and it has to do it fast.
Kameron Chatman has struggled while Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman just aren’t ready. Down low, Beilein’s best option has been to shuffle through Mark Donnal, Ricky Doyle and Max Bielfeldt and hope he comes up with the winning ticket. Michigan needs some sort of consistent production from someone other than its four veterans and right now it’s not there.
Perhaps the only positive of traveling across the country to face a top-five team like Arizona is the fact that the pressure will be off. Against Eastern Michigan, the Wolverines played like a team that had just lost to NJIT and was terrified it would happen again. That pressure will be off at Arizona, where Michigan will probably be a double-digit underdog, but the Wolverines will also be playing arguably their most difficult game of the season.
The losses are much worse this season (NJIT and EMU at home are about as bad as it gets), but the calendar is still on Michigan’s side. Last year on this exact day, the Wolverines held the an identical 6-3 record and were about to face Arizona. That team lost to Arizona, then lost Mitch McGary a week later only to rebound and make the Elite Eight. That sort of talk is eons away for this group, but there’s a lot of basketball left to be played this season.
- Derrick Walton: Walton was Michigan’s only bright spot in the first half as he ripped rebounds away from EMU players, pushed the tempo, got to the line and even made a couple of baskets. His second half was much more forgettable. Walton just seemed too passive against the zone and didn’t make a shot in the second half. He forced a number of difficult passes into the teeth of the zone and just never looked comfortable.
- Caris LeVert: LeVert was one of two Wolverines to reach 10 points, but he had more turnovers (3) than assists (2) and was just 4-of-12 from the field. He had Michigan’s best chance to tie the game down the stretch, missing an open three from the wing. He also appeared to be bothered by EMU’s length in the middle of the zone and just couldn’t find a comfort zone.
- Zak Irvin: Walton and LeVert’s struggles seemed to be related to the zone, but Irvin appears to be in a more serious crisis of confidence. Irvin didn’t look confident when he was open and was forcing shots when he was guarded. He’s now just 3-of-16 from three-point range (and 2-of-7 inside the arc) over Michigan’s last two games and the Wolverines are going to need him to snap out of his slump in Tucson.
- Spike Albrecht: Albrecht shredded Syracuse’s zone last week, but he really struggled against EMU. He had two brutal possessions down the stretch where he first fired up a 25+ foot three and then turned the ball over the next trip down the floor. He finished 0-of-3 from the floor with just 1 assist to a career-high four turnovers.
- Kameron Chatman: Chatman needs to be stronger with the ball and he’s not progressing as quickly as many hoped.. He’s tentative with both his ball handling and his movement and that’s costing him minutes. He missed a couple of the mid-range jumpers that he knocked down against Syracuse’s zone and only played six minutes in the second half.
- Ricky Doyle: Doyle had a big dunk in the second half that gave Michigan a bit of momentum, but he also struggled to catch the ball down around the block. The passes weren’t always the greatest and EMU’s zone was impressive, but it was clear how badly Michigan missed a reliable option like Morgan or Robinson flashing baseline.
- Mark Donnal: I thought Donnal did some good things including a nice second half blocked shot and a drawn charge in the first half, but his hesitancy to shoot the ball when he caught it in the short corner was troubling. Donnal passed up that shot twice in the first eight minutes and his hesitation to shoot the ball was a big reason why EMU was able to extend its defense so far.
- Max Bielfeldt: Bielfeldt scored five points in 11 minutes and provided a bit of a spark, but he struggled against the much bigger EMU bigs.
- Aubrey Dawkins: Dawkins got a bit of extended playing time in the first half, but didn’t make much of an impact. He missed his lone field goal attempt and grabbed a rebound in five minutes.
- Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman: MAAR made the first shot of his career late in the first half, he was probably the least likely player to score Michigan’s first FG in the halfcourt offense after a painful drought.