Saturday, December 22, 2007

Michigan shows life against UCLA


If college basketball games were 30 minutes, I'd be breaking down the Michigan men's basketball team's biggest win in probably 10 years.

Unfortunately for the Wolverines — as we all know — games last 40 minutes, and the eighth-ranked Bruins (11-1) wore down Michigan to win 69-54.

The game was much closer than the final score indicated. From the start, John Beilein had his players energized while the Bruins — who absolutely massacred the Wolverines a year ago — simply went through the motions.

Despite throwing up some of the nastiest bricks in the first 10 minutes, Michigan recovered from an 8-0 hole by switching between Beilein's patented 1-3-1 zone — which forced UCLA to throw several ineffective lob passes — and man-to-man defense. UCLA didn't respond well to either of Michigan's looks, turning the ball over 11 times in the half.

Additionally, despite Michigan's smaller lineup acting as the David to UCLA's Goliath frontcourt anchored by freshman beast Kevin Love, the Wolverines held their own on the boards and came up with every single loose ball.

And 3-pointers by DeShawn Sims and C.J. Lee to close out the half gave Michigan a 27-24 lead heading into the locker room.

But while Michigan's youth aided it in playing loose and energetic in the first half, it came back to bite it after the Wolverines shot out to a 36-28 second-half lead.

All of a sudden, there was a change in body language. I could tell — watching my HD TV — that the Wolverines had started to think about the finish line, about the possibility of upsetting a national title contender.

Michigan tightened up, and the turnovers destroyed them. A UCLA 3-pointer followed by four points off Michigan miscues, and the Bruins were within a point. The Wolverines hung around for a few more minutes, but once UCLA finally regained the lead 45-43 with 8:40 to play, the outcome wasn't really in doubt.

For the final 8 minutes, UCLA played like, well, UCLA. Crisp passing, deadly shooting — particularly by Josh Shipp (19 points, three 3s) — and hands-in-the-passing-lanes defense. When the Bruins are playing well, you know why. There was nothing esoteric about them dominating the boards down the stretch and making their free throws. There are many reasons why they've been to consecutive Final Fours.

The Wolverines, however, continue to search for their identity, for their catharsis for when things begin to go downhill. On Saturday, they didn't have a response to UCLA's final push. They didn't have a guy they could give the ball to and tell to create. They didn't have a big man like Love they could get the ball to.

It's just the state of the current team.

Michigan is now 4-8 heading into Big Ten play. Last year, it was 12-3 — and there was talk about making the NCAA tournament. But last year's team also go beat by that absurd 37 points in Westwood, Calif.

So is this year's squad, under a new coach, better?

When it plays like it did for three quarters of Saturday's game, the answer is a resounding "yes."

Progress this season can't be judged by wins and losses. If you're foolish enough to judge the Wolverines that way, you'll be greatly disappointed.

Rather, are the Wolverines learning Beilein's 3-point shooting system? Are they tightening up that 1-3-1 zone? Are they coming together as a group, gaining confidence in each other?

Those are the measuring sticks by which to judge these Wolverines.

And if they play with the same verve with which they did for an hour-plus Saturday, they'll pull a couple surprises in the Big Ten as well.


Tyler Hampton said...

I think that Michigan might have a similar problem to my Illinois. They come out strong and get a good lead, but then they realize all of a sudden; "Oh yeah, we suck." then they proceed to screw up the rest of the game. It is very obvious that what you said is true because neither of the teams have a guy that can create a way to score. They both need a go to guy that can score when they need him. It's going to be a long season for both teams.

Jake Lloyd said...

Quite a bitter attitude after Illinois' win over Missouri Saturday night. I still wouldn't count them out as a tournament team. Bruce Weber tends to get the most out of his players — even marginal guys.

Sportsattitude said...

Maybe a long season is still in the cards for the Wolverines, but as you say, surely improvement will be measured more accurately by watching them play than wins and losses. Beilein inherited what he has and will do what he can...meanwhile, it looks like West Virginia hasn't missed a beat in his "absence." Coach Huggins benefiting from Beilein's prior efforts.

Jake Lloyd said...

Yeah, I'm a bit surprised by WVU's hot start. We'll see how good they really are in league play, but I'd still take Beilein over Huggins any day — and not just because of Huggins' character/off-the-court issues.