NCAA BK

Wolverines stumbling at wrong time

Michigan Wolverines head coach John Beilein (left) talks with guard Trey Burke
John Beilein and Trey Burke have lost three of their last six games.
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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CHICAGO

Wisconsin is a balled-up fist of a basketball team, and Michigan didn’t really need another punch in the mouth. But the Wolverines got it Friday in the Big Ten tournament, losing 68-59.

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They’re out. They’re confused. They’re lost. And they’re a little bloodied, too.

Not long ago, they were No. 1.

Michigan is a mess at just the wrong time, heading into the NCAA tournament. Actually, in some ways, Michigan wins by losing. It didn’t need a marquee loss to Indiana on Saturday, even if that would have been part of the Big Day that Big Ten officials were dreaming about.

The Big Ten is having a celebration here in Chicago, finally pumped up as the best at something again. With a Michigan-Indiana game, Saturday’s Big Ten tournament Final Four could have rivaled the big Final Four. Best of all, it could have helped to give the Big Ten exactly what it’s desperate for:

Something to make people forget football.

Michigan coach John Beilein was better off having an extra day to figure out what in the world has happened. The Wolverines have now lost six of their past 12 games.

Not long ago, they were fun and gun. Now, the only things you notice when watching them is that they aren’t playing defense and they aren’t tough enough.

Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan talked about why his team kept smashing the ball inside:

“I’m not the smartest guy in the world,’’ he said. “But my grandfather, when I fished with him, always took me to the hole where we caught fish before.’’

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Translation: All the easy baskets were closest to the rim.

And now, teams are even figuring out the Michigan offense. It has turned into a stutter-step, with stud guard Trey Burke left to try to figure out if he should bother to include his teammates or if he’s just in this thing alone.

“Teams stop the pick and roll, they stop me from getting in the paint,’’ Burke said. “I think teams are catching on. I’m trying to find that balance when teams are hugging the perimeter.’’

Did you hear that? He just said that teams are blocking things up under the basket AND hugging the perimeter. That’s called confusion, when every path looks blocked.

This was never going to be a return to the Fab Five, the most fun college team in history. But the Wolverines are still defined by that group. Since then, in the past 20 years, Michigan basketball was about infamy and then embarrassment and then bottoming out.

Beilein is bringing back the program, getting real players again. The Wolverines reached No. 1 (Who didn’t?).

But just when you think they were ready to return to the Final Four, now it’s starting to look as if they’re in for another letdown.

They certainly allowed Wisconsin to ugly-them up Friday. By halftime, the Wolverines had just 20 points, making only a third of their shots.

They led by three points, but that was basically a trap. They had been slowed.

Wisconsin was fishing.

“The old cliché,’’ Wisconsin forward Ryan Evans said. “Defense wins championships. We understand that here, and anything we can do to slow those guys down and get our shots is what’s going to move us forward.’’

Well, that might be the best plan for Wisconsin, and its type of talent. But while we like to think that defense wins, and screens and hustle, eventually, it always seems that athletic talent is what really does. Maybe it’s a mix. But it’s a myth that the little, scrappy team wins it all.

Michigan has the ability. In fact, Wisconsin led by 10 with 5½ minutes left Friday, and then suddenly, Michigan’s athleticism overwhelmed with fast breaks and steals off the dribble.

But even that was a confusion for Michigan. Burke had been waiting for his teammates to get moving. And waiting. And waiting.

“Down nine with four or five minutes left,’’ Burke said, “I felt I needed to make plays.’’

Yes, that’s what the star is supposed to do down the stretch. In just two minutes, Michigan had cut the deficit to two. But then Wisconsin started pounding away again.

“We’re a much more physical team than we were early in the year,’’ Burke said.

That doesn’t say much. The Wolverines didn’t have to be physical early in the year. Now they do. Teams have adjusted to them.

Now, they have to adjust back in the NCAA tournament. They have time. But they have to punch back.

Tagged: Wisconsin, Michigan

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