CHICAGO – To believe in Michigan at this moment is to believe that Big Ten Player of the Year Trey Burke is really that good, capable of singular feats of NCAA tournament heroism.
Burke has been left to do too much. Michigan, again, is stumbling in March, its weaknesses exposed and confidence shaken.
A team that was flirting with the nation’s No. 1 ranking seven weeks ago is now 6-6 in its last 12 games after losing to Wisconsin, 68-59, in the Big Ten quarterfinals on Friday afternoon. The Wolverines won’t be a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, and an offense that earlier in the season was once of the most dangerous in the country doesn’t appear capable of overwhelming any opponent Michigan will see in its bracket.
The defense is reeling, too. Five days after squandering a second-half lead — and a chance to share the Big Ten title — against Indiana, Michigan gave up 51 second-half points to Wisconsin on Friday. The Badgers shot 61 percent, 67 percent on 3-pointers and won the rebounding battle, 17-13, in the second half.
“We really have to grow defensively,” Michigan coach John Beilein said.
Days, not weeks, remain for such growth.
No. 8 Michigan built a lead early on Wisconsin Friday but didn’t click again until Burke took over in a late stretch, leading a surge that cut Wisconsin’s lead from 11 points with 6:01 to play to 2 with 3:35 left. The Badgers are a well-coached, well-balanced team and played like one over the game’s final 30 minutes, but this was a game Michigan really couldn’t afford to lose.
It’s the wrong time for defensive breakdowns and too heavy a reliance on Burke, who scored 19 points and had Michigan’s only 7 assists Friday. In addition to having 11 turnovers to go with those 7 assists, Michigan shot 3-of-13 on 3-pointers. The Wolverines got 30 points in the paint, but 0 from starting center Jordan Morgan.
The problems are multiple — and they’re showing up at the wrong time.
“We need to refocus and regroup or sooner or later, we’ll be done,” Burke said.
The Wolverines are a young team — but so are many of college basketball’s best. With Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. in the backcourt, Michigan is capable of better. But great play has come only in stretches, and problems defensively and around the basket keep showing up.
Wisconsin scores 51 points in a game a lot more than it scores 51 points in a half.
“The second half, they scored at will,” Beilein said. “We’ll fix it the best we can. We have been trying all year long.”
Michigan came into the Big Ten tournament ranked No. 8 nationally in field-goal percentage, 23rd in scoring offense and second in assist-to-turnover ratio. But even the offensive numbers have been down lately, and not just against always-stingy Wisconsin. The loss to Indiana last weekend is the only time since Feb. 5 the Wolverines have shot better than 33 percent from the line.
You’d have to go back to January to find the last time Michigan really put two solid performances together. Everybody beat everybody in this year’s Big Ten — and the freewheeling Wolverines are the kind of team that figures to benefit from playing unfamiliar competition next weekend — but it’s clear that Michigan is neither operating nor intimidating now like it was two months ago.
That Penn State loss on Feb. 27 was not just a head-scratcher — it was Penn State’s first win in 2013 — but a cause for alarm. Michigan got bounced in the first round of last year’s NCAA tournament, and it’s clear the Wolverines are vulnerable when the shots aren’t dropping. Burke shot 22 times on Friday, and though he’s still at an impressive 48.5 percent from the field for the season, he hasn’t matched that percentage in a game in March.
Going home early from the Big Ten tournament gives the players a chance to get their legs back, and it gives Beilein a chance to get their attention. Their top-10 ranking will be gone when the final regular-season poll is released Monday, and that’s not necessarily a terrible thing.
Maybe the Wolverines will still get to play in Detroit next weekend, but if they do it will be based on what they did in December and early January, when all was right, the shots were dropping and grand visions for March seemed realistic. Now, though, the Wolverines are slumping.
For the second straight year, Michigan is trending the wrong way at the time the games mean the most.