The 2014-15 season has been a bit of an outlier for the Michigan basketball program under John Beilein recently.
The Wolverines, which have made the NCAA tournament four seasons in a row, will miss the dance unless they can make a surprising run to a Big Ten tournament championship. Even an NIT bid remains in question as Michigan toes the .500 mark.
The struggles have taken their toll on the Beilein.
“I think with all our coaches, we get frustrated because we know we’re close, but trying to get that next level of achievement from them is difficult to do,” he said. “You’re just right there, either make that shot or make that pass or don’t throw that pass down there, get it up here. The only thing we do is just stay patient with it and continue to work on skill level.
We’re starting all over again. You’re just, physically and mentally, saying, ‘Ok, we’ve done this before. Let’s go do it again.’ Just didn’t expect it.”
“It’s difficult sometimes. And it’s difficult for them to hear the same thing over and over. We just have to work together to understand this is just temporary. This is part of the process. I’m not walking off the ledge of a building or anything like that. I’m fine. When you have your last couple of years be the way we were, you just get spoiled. You’re expecting certain things and you have to tone it back and say, ‘They’re just kids still. They can do this.’
“… We’re starting all over again. You’re just, physically and mentally, saying, ‘Ok, we’ve done this before. Let’s go do it again.’ Just didn’t expect it.”
Wolverines again to face 2-3 zone
Having won four of its last five games, Northwestern is one of the Big Ten’s hottest teams. And while the Wildcats remain in the bottom third of the Big Ten, results suggest they’ve improved from the team that lost 10 straight conference games to start 2015.
Michigan was the fourth contest of that Northwestern losing streak, and the Wolverines rode an 18-point performance from Caris LeVert for a two-point victory — though it came at a steep cost, as the junior suffered his season-ending injury on the final play.
Tuesday, Michigan travels to Evanston for the rematch knowing it must win its last two games to guarantee a winning record on the regular season.
“They’re really connected,” Beilein said of the Wildcats. “Their starting five has been healthy the whole year, and they’ve been able to get a timing to what they’re doing. And the big man, if you were at our game last year, guarding (Alex) Olah was an issue for us. We have our work cut out for us.”
While Maryland, Saturday’s opponent, defends nearly exclusively in man-to-man, Beilein expects to see almost entirely 2-3 zone from the Wildcats. Northwestern’s recent winning streak was fueled in part by a shift from man-to-man to zone defense.
The Wolverines have had plenty of experience against that scheme this season. They beat Syracuse and lost to Eastern Michigan, two teams that relied heavily on the defense, and Iowa slowed Michigan with it in early February.
“We may see a 2-3 zone from wire to wire,” Beilein said. “We haven’t seen a lot of zone since Iowa, [who] stymied us with their zone.”
The key to breaking down the 2-3, as Beilein explained after losing to the Hawkeyes, is good ball movement around the perimeter in order to create passing lanes to the free-throw line, the zone’s weak spot. Spike Albrecht struggled with that against Iowa.
“They played off Spike just enough,” Beilein said then. “He’s got to move in closer, he’s got to look like he’s going to shoot it. Caris LeVert was a guy we got in there a lot. He’s a good passer in the zone, or finding people who are cutting into the zone. We missed that today, his vision.”
Against Syracuse, Kameron Chatman was at times the point man at the free throw line, and he finished with 10 points on the night. The freshman has enjoyed consecutive productive games, and, given Aubrey Dawkins’ recent shooting struggles, could be a factor Tuesday.
Beilein again defends ‘two foul autobench’
The Wolverines never tied Maryland or took the lead in the second half of an eventual 10-point loss.
Monday, Beilein defended the autobench policy, which has earned the coach heavy scrutiny — especially after Irvin finished the Maryland game with two fouls and Abdur-Rahkman with three.
“There’s some times it will backfire on you,” Beilein said. “Those last two or three minutes all of a sudden, boom, things could blow up. At the same time, I’d like to know how many times that nobody ever noticed that that guy came out and played a great second half. That’s number one.
“I think number two would be, as a coach, if I know they have that other guy in with two fouls, we are running a play right at him immediately. You have to respect that. They’re going to run that play at him, and is he going to play defense the way you want him to play?
“I think another thing that happens sometimes — and I’m always trying to think about doing things a different way — is, would he really have impacted those last two or three minutes? Seriously, we had two or three really good looks that didn’t go in. [Dakich and Lonergan] didn’t hurt us during that time. Maryland hurt us.
“… I’m going to be wrong sometimes, but I think, over time, we’ve done a pretty good job with that.”
Walton return not imminent
Though Derrick Walton warmed up with the Wolverines on Saturday, Beilein explained the guard wasn’t close to playing. The sophomore has incrementally increased his participation in practice as the coaching staff tries to determine whether the resulting soreness is due to the injury or from not being in game shape.
“It’s sort of a pain-tolerance thing,” Beilein said. “Just trying to measure where he is. Each day, he’s trying to do a little bit more, but the soreness the next day we’re trying to sort out.”