Michigan basketball faces rare late-season gut check after loss to Michigan State

Wolverines lose first home game of season

Cassius Winston tries to split the defense of Zavier Simpson and Jordan Poole at the Crisler Center on Feb. 24, 2019, in Ann Arbor. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Cassius Winston tries to split the defense of Zavier Simpson and Jordan Poole at the Crisler Center on Feb. 24, 2019, in Ann Arbor. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The Michigan basketball team is at a strange crossroads.

After losing its first home game of the season to rival Michigan State, the Wolverines are 4-3 in their last seven games and likely out of the Big Ten regular season title race. Nobody in Ann Arbor is panicking over a 24-4 record, but many are wondering when Michigan's typical late-season surge will begin.

In the last two seasons, John Beilein's team has touched another gear in February and March. In 2016, the team was 14-9 and a fringe NCAA Tournament participant before winning 10 of 12 and reaching the Sweet 16. Last year, Michigan won 14 straight in February and March to reach the national championship game.

The 2018-19 season, while still impressive, has seemed a bit backward. Michigan started the year with a school-record 17 straight wins before dropping an entirely justifiable road game against Wisconsin.

Two weeks later, a loss at Iowa didn't seem to be cause for alarm, even though it came by 15 points and Michigan was never really competitive in the second half.

Then, Michigan got completely outclassed by last-place Penn State. For a team that hadn't lost a single game to a non-NCAA Tournament team, that could be chalked up to one off night against a team that's much better than its record.

Even the home loss came against a Michigan State team that's ranked in the top 10 and could easily reach this year's Final Four. MSU was, however, playing without two of its best players in Joshua Langford and Nick Ward.

Michigan and Michigan State prepare for their game on Feb. 24, 2019. (WDIV)

Individually, those four losses aren't a big deal. Collectively, they suggest this Michigan team might have peaked too early in the season.

If anything, this conversation shows how far the Michigan basketball program has come. Michigan's first three losses all resulted in the opposing team's fans rushing the court. Michigan State unleashed a championship-level celebration in the locker room after winning in Ann Arbor.

Michigan is 24-4 and projected as a No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The conversation isn't about whether the sky is falling. It's about whether Michigan is playing well enough to make its customary run in the Big Dance.

Zavier Simpson is the type of leader who can carry a team in March, but unlike a typical NCAA Tournament darling, he does it from the defensive end. Simpson is a great passer and an improving scorer, but he needs his wings to be offensive weapons.

Xavier Tillman celebrates while playing Michigan at the Crisler Center on Feb. 24, 2019, in Ann Arbor. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

In the last month, Charles Matthews, Jordan Poole and Ignas Brazdeikis just haven't been consistently reliable.

Sunday was the latest example. Poole finished with 15 points, but six of them came with the game already beyond reach. He shot just five of 13 with two assists and one rebound in 35 minutes.

Matthews, though playing with a bit of a bad ankle, scored four points in 28 minutes with zero rebounds and one assist.

Brazdeikis was solid in the game, scoring 16 points on five of 11 shooting and adding nine rebounds. It was his first time scoring at least 15 points in a game since Feb. 5, though. The freshman has been on-and-off since a dominant nonconference slate.

Since its turnaround in 2017, Michigan basketball has built a foundation on defense, toughness and winning big games. After giving up 77 points and losing to a rival at home, those values are being tested.

The final home game will be Thursday against a battered Nebraska team that's lost nine of 11 games, but then the regular season ends with road trips to Maryland and Michigan State.

Those two road games will be good indicators of whether Michigan is heading in the right direction before the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.


About the Author: