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What's the matter with Michigan?

12/10/2014



On Saturday, after the New Jersey Institute of Technology, a conference-less program with just eight seasons of membership in Division I, staged a historic upset over Michigan 72-70 in Ann Arbor Dana O'Neil asked the pertinent question: How on Earth did that just happen?

Her conclusion:

But really, blame human nature. Coaches and players all like to say they take every game one game at a time, and blah, blah, blah.

Let’s be serious. Having just come off the big game against Syracuse and with a date against Arizona slated for next week, there is no way the Wolverines gave NJIT the same sort of attention. There are 350 teams playing Division I basketball. Even with all of the conference reshuffling, only one is still left out in the cold, orphaned with no league, and that’s NJIT.

By the time Michigan realized it was time to get it in gear, it was too late.

After Tuesday night's 45-42 loss to Eastern Michigan -- also in Ann Arbor -- it's time to ask a slightly simpler version of the same question.

Really, guys? Really?

Just four days after being torched by a program that lost 51 straight games as recently as 2008-09, you put up 42 points in a home loss to Eastern Michigan? In your big bounce-back confidence-builder before a weekend road trip to Arizona, you go without a field goal for 14 minutes of the first half? In the final three minutes of the second half, when high-major home teams in nonconference scares typically stack enough good possessions to see out a win, you go scoreless? You hold an opponent to 45 points on 59 possesions, and you lose?! At home?! Really?

To be clear, the Eagles are no NJIT. For starters, they are members of a conference -- the Mid-American Conference, thank you very much -- and a potential NCAA tournament team. On Saturday, they played Dayton to a nervy nine-point loss in UD Arena, and their defense, even adjusted for a really ugly pre-UD schedule, is legitimately respectable on a per-possession basis. On Tuesday night, coach Rob Murphy's zone did a more-than-respectable number on the Wolverines' favored sets.

But still, in 2012-13 and 2013-14, the Michigan Wolverines wielded the nation's most efficient offense. You remember: Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas and then a whole lot more of Nik Stauskas? Of course you do. The past two seasons, Michigan's offense wasn't just good. It wasn't even just great. It was the best offense in the country.

On Tuesday, it scored 42 points in a home loss to Eastern Michigan.

Had that happened in a vacuum, well, it would be a funky night at the office, weird things happen in 40 minutes, nothing to see here, move right along. Coming as it does, the second in back-to-back home, nonconference upsets, it's hardly hyperbole to call this an abject disaster.

But it actually gets worse because the hows and whys of the Wolverines' two losses are startlingly, disconcertingly incongruous.

Against NJIT, Michigan scored the ball well enough -- 70 points in 59 possessions, including an 11-of-24 mark from outside the 3-point line. But John Beilein's team didn't play much defense -- possibly a symptom of what Dana identified as "Come on, we're playing NJIT. How many shots are they really going to make?" But NJIT made all those shots, and Michigan couldn't turn it on in time to save the game.

Tuesday was an entirely different ordeal. The one area in which Eastern Michigan excels as habit on the offensive end is in its caution: EMU entered the night averaging turnovers on just 15.3 percent of its possessions, 14th-best in the country. The Wolverines turned Eastern Michigan over almost twice that often. The Eagles shot 32.9 percent from the field and 31.6 percent from 3. Michigan executed its defensive plan, turned its opponents' strengths into weaknesses, allowed paltry shooting and still lost at home to Eastern Michigan. This time, its offense, including a 4-of-21 affair from 3, was the mess du jour.

All of this would be much easier to analyze, if not to swallow, if these two losses revealed some quantifiable flaw on Michigan's part. They can't guard. They can't score. They're too small. They're too big. Whatever. Some aspect, some factor, something to grasp onto and say, OK, well, we definitely need to shore that up.

In addition to the facts of the losses, then, we're forced to wonder whether there's something else at work -- some chemistry issue, some vague and unquantifiable problem. Michigan can score, right? It played Villanova tight, didn't it? It handled Syracuse's 2-3 zone just last week. Michigan wasn't this bad at anything last week? So why is it playing that way now?

Maybe it's a day of bad defense followed by a night of bad shooting. Maybe it's something deep and systemic. Beilein and his staff need to find the answer quickly. Already, these two losses have jeopardized Michigan's entire at-large résumé; never underestimate the RPI-killing effect of results such as these or the importance of nonconference performance in the hive mind of the selection committee. Meanwhile, on Saturday, the Wolverines travel to Tucson, Arizona, where they will be greeted by a team that is, with all due respect, light-years more difficult to defend and score against than NJIT or Eastern Michigan could ever aspire to be.

On Tuesday night, Michigan was supposed to get right. Instead, after a second straight home upset loss -- one somehow even uglier than the first -- things in Ann Arbor have gone really wrong.