Wolverines falling far below expectations

BY RICK BOZICH

Special to FOXSports.com

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Coaches and writers

don’t agree on many things, but here is one item they refused

to fuss about before the start of this college basketball season:

The University of Michigan had one of the best teams in

America, a vibrant, confident group packed with shooters, energy,

optimism and other good vibrations, primarily Manny Harris, perhaps

the most unstoppable force in the Big Ten.

The coaches looked at the lineup that John Beilein had

assembled for his third season in Ann Arbor and voted the

Wolverines 15th in their preseason poll. Ditto for the folks who

voted in the Associated Press Top 25. Sources say there was even

one magazine that ranked Michigan as high as — gulp —

ninth.

“We were confident coming into the season,” said

Michigan guard Zack Novak. “When people are saying those good

things about you, you’re going to believe them.”

You should hear some of the things that people are saying

about the Wolverines today. That they’re the biggest bust in

the Big Ten, maybe in the nation. That the Wolverines are going to

huff and puff to get back into the NCAA tournament, even though

they still have many of the dazzling pieces from the team that beat

Clemson in the opening round last season.

That they might be ninth — ninth in the Big Ten, that

is.

On Monday, Indiana watched Maurice Creek, its best scorer,

leave the floor on a stretcher with a fractured knee. No Creek? No

problem. Thursday in Assembly Hall, even without Creek and his

typical 16 points and four boards, the grittier and more determined

Hoosiers handled the Wolverines, 71-65.

Considering Indiana won a single game in the Big Ten last

season and burped a 20-point, second-half home-court lead against

the Wolverines last Jan. 7, it’s safe to call the Hoosiers

improved and inspired.

What’s tricky is trying to find a word that describes

Michigan, which has now lost half of its first 12 games and has

beaten one Division I team with a winning record.

Perplexing? Struggling? Confused? Flawed? Overrated? They all

seem to fit. Talk is already percolating that a team that was

picked 15th in the nation and as high as third in the Big Ten

won’t make the NCAA tourney.

“We’ve got to start winning games to even think

about making the tournament,” said Harris, a junior guard.

“We just have to start winning games.”

“It’s just humbling,” said Deshawn Sims,

Michigan’s senior center. “We have a long way to go as

a team. We have a lot to learn.”

Last season Michigan beat Duke, Illinois, Purdue and Clemson

before making Oklahoma squirm in the second-round of the NCAA

tournament.

This season Michigan has beaten … Detroit?

And that is despite the dynamic play of Harris, the marvelous

wing player who ranks first in the Big Ten in scoring, second in

assists and third in rebounds even though he is only 6-5.

“It’s tough,” said Stu Douglass, a

sophomore guard. “I try not to think about it. But sometimes

I do think about it and I haven’t come up with an answer.

“Obviously people rated us way too high. I don’t

know if it was from looking at that and having high expectations,

or if we just came in and we weren’t the same team as last

year. I don’t know what the answer is.”

A few answers are apparent from looking at the numbers. The

Wolverines’ defense is ordinary and their rebounding is

worse. Beilein’s team ranks 10th in the league in field-goal

percentage and 11th in rebounding margin. In Michigan’s six

defeats, opposing teams have made 49.5 percent of their shots and

outrebounded the Wolverines by nearly eight boards per game.

Beilein’s team is supposed to play a different game

than the other teams in the Big Ten. If the rest of the league is

known for its beefy shoulders, sharp elbows and non-negotiable

commitment to defense, Michigan is the team that attacks with a

different idea — zone defense and 3-point shooting, from

every part of the lineup.

That’s the way that Beilein likes to play, and

it’s also the way his team has to play because Michigan only

starts one player taller than 6-5. That is Sims, who is 6-8.

One problem: Michigan has not been a good 3-point shooting

team this season. In fact, the Wolverines have been a bad one.

They rank last in the Big Ten and 260th in the nation from

behind the line that Beilein loves. Against Indiana, Michigan made

32 percent of its threes (9 of 28), but the Wolverines still sit at

barely better than 29 percent on the season.

“We’re not going to win if we do that,”

Beilein said. “We’ve got to keep working.”

“Before the season, we thought we were pretty solid,

definitely better than 6-6,” Harris said. “Now? Now

we’re in shock.”

So are the writers and coaches.

Rick Bozich is a sports columnist for The Louisville

Courier-Journal and blogs regularly

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here

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