There's nowhere left for Juwan Howard's Wolverines to hide
Michigan’s basketball team has had exactly one thing work in its favor this season.
The ability to avoid the spotlight.
As Michigan stumbled its way through November and December, it was hardly front-page news in Ann Arbor. Nor should it have been.
Michigan’s football team was busy taking the headlines with its first win over Ohio State since 2011, its first Big Ten championship since 2004, Aidan Hutchinson’s Heisman hype and the buildup to the program’s first-ever College Football Playoff appearance.
In basketball, the Wolverines lost to Central Florida to drop to 7-5 on Dec. 30 — a truly horrendous defeat — but few would have noticed if they lost to Michigan Tech. The Orange Bowl was kicking off the very next day.
It finally looked as if Michigan’s disappointing season might capture the limelight with Saturday’s lackluster 83-67 loss at Michigan State. It was the most prominently broadcast college basketball game of the early afternoon, going head-to-head against few other games with a 12:30 p.m. tip on CBS.
But even then, a fellow Wolverine provided a bit of a bailout. Near the end of the game, reports trickled out that former Michigan quarterback Tom Brady is finally retiring after a 22-year NFL career. This was the focal point of the entire world of sports.
There will be no such luck for the Wolverines moving forward.
Howard’s team, which opened the season at No. 6 in the preseason AP poll, officially finds itself in dire straits. With a win at Michigan State, Michigan could have positioned itself in a good spot for making a late NCAA tournament push.
That didn’t happen. Didn’t even come close to happening. The game was never competitive after the first media timeout of the second half. As a result, the Wolverines are now 10-8 with a 4-4 record in the Big Ten.
The preseason favorites to win the Big Ten need a miracle to live up to that billing, and they’ll also need a heck of a final push to avoid joining some embarrassing company.
Since 2001, a total of 11 teams ranked in the preseason Top 10 have proceeded to miss the NCAA tournament. That happened as recently as last year when Duke opened the season at No. 9 and failed to reach the tourney.
But the last time it happened to a Big Ten team was in 2001-02, when Steve Alford-coached Iowa began the season ranked ninth and went on to finish the season with a first-round loss in the NIT.
Michigan certainly looks poised to join those Hawkeyes in a category no team ever wants to get lumped into.
Spartans expose Michigan’s defensive softness
Beating a Tom Izzo-coached Michigan State team is never easy. But there is one clear way to beat this year’s Spartans — force them into self-inflicted errors.
Michigan State is doing a lot of things well this season, but ball protection is not among them. The Spartans are the most turnover-prone team in the Big Ten and are 279th nationally in percentage of possessions resulting in turnovers.
Michigan wasn’t good enough defensively to exploit that weakness, which is no surprise. The Wolverines haven’t been good enough on defense all season, and there’s little reason to believe that will change.
Defense is the biggest difference from last year’s Elite 8 run to this year’s disappointment.
A year ago, Howard’s team was fourth nationally in defensive efficiency and sixth in effective field goal percentage, according to KenPom.com. This season, the Wolverines are 76th in defensive efficiency and 107th in effective field goal percentage.
While Michigan’s offense has dipped slightly from a year ago — ninth in offensive efficiency and 25th in effective field goal percentage down to 21st and 57th, respectively — the defense has fallen off a cliff.
Many pundits — present company included — felt Michigan was about to turn the corner after last week’s 80-62 win at Indiana. Instead, it appears more likely that the Hoosiers were unprepared for Michigan following an emotional win over rival Purdue.
There’s still a path to the NCAA tournament for the Wolverines — the Big Ten tournament always provides one — but the wiggle room is shrinking if Michigan intends to earn an at-large bid. And if the Wolverines don’t defend better, the wiggle room will be nonexistent.
Preseason Top 10 teams to miss NCAA tournament
Since 2001-02 season
- 2020-21 Duke — preseason rank: No. 9; final record: 13-11
- 2017-18 USC — preseason rank: No. 10; final record: 24-12 (NIT second round)
- 2014-15 Florida — preseason rank: No. 10; final record: 16-17
- 2012-13 Kentucky — preseason rank: No. 3; final record: 21-12 (NIT first round)
- 2011-12 Pitt — preseason rank: No. 10; final record: 22-17 (CBI champions)
- 2009-10 North Carolina — preseason rank No. 6; final record: 20-17 (NIT runners-up)
- 2008-09 Notre Dame — preseason rank No. 9; final record: 21-15 (NIT semifinals)
- 2006-07 LSU — preseason No. 5; final record: 17-15
- 2003-04 Missouri — preseason No. 5; final record: 16-15 (NIT first round)
- 2001-02 Saint Joseph’s — preseason No. 10; final record: 19-12 (NIT second round)
- 2001-02 Iowa — preseason No. 9; final record: 19-16 (NIT first round)