Michigan lost Wednesday night to Penn State in one of the most embarrassing moments in Michigan athletics since the football team lost to Appalachian State in 2009. The Nittany Lions, who had not won a single Big Ten game before beating Michigan, came back with a 21-6 run to end the game, 84-78, after trailing throughout the second half.
Penn State played well Wednesday, finally getting their first conference win of the the season. But the story is not about them. The story here is the continued ineptitude Michigan has shown on the road in the month of February. They went 3-4 in the month, all four losses away from Crisler. If Michigan was going to learn how to play well on the road, it would have happened already. They have just three games left in the regular season and are regressing at an alarming rate, away from what appeared to be a national champion contender.
The problems go deeper than just playing on the road. On the court, Michigan’s defense and rebounding have been their weakness. They have given up an average of 77.5 point to Penn State in two meetings in the past two weeks. Penn State is a team that only averages just 61.2 points per game and has the least efficient offense in the Big Ten. The key for Penn State was three point shooting, where they made 10-20, while the Wolverines made just 5-20.
On a larger scale, Michigan’s defense, which has been its weakness all season, is starting to really hurt them. Michigan has given up 1.11 points per possession in the month of February, that would be the worst in the Big Ten over the conference season. Overall, Michigan is a pretty mediocre defensive squad. But mediocrity does not make it to Final Fours, or even Sweet 16s for that matter. Their stellar offense can only cover up for their defense for so long.
Even worse than the defense has been the rebounding for Michigan. The poor rebounding compounds the lackluster defense by giving opposing offenses second chances. Wednesday night alone, Michigan gave up 11 offensive rebounds and eight in the first half. Giving up offensive rebounds have really hurt the Wolverines recently, they gave up 10 in the first half to Illinois, but picked up their play and ended up winning easily.
That has been the thing for Michigan on the road, though. They start off poorly and against lesser teams they come back and win with their talent or lose to the good teams. John Beilein has not been able to get his team prepared to play on the road. That is a huge indictment on a coach, to not be able to have his team ready to play. It has not been an isolated issue either. Michigan has routinely started games poorly on the road and it has finally caught up with them in the month of February. They have trailed by an average of 3.5 points at the end of the first half in their last four road losses. To put that in context, Michigan has a point differential of 13.9 points per game on the season.
I don’t usually like to blame the coach when a team does not perform well. It is up to the players to perform well, there is only so much a coach can do. But, having your team prepared to play is one thing a coach can control. The same is true on getting your team to focus on defense and box out on opponents. Beilein has not been able to do that, and not just once or twice. He consistently sends out a team that does not appear prepared for the game, lacks focus and just does not give a solid effort. That is inexcusable and that should put a whole lot of blame on Beilein.
And if Michigan’s approach does not change, neither will their results. The Big Ten tournament is not being held in Ann Arbor and neither is the NCAA Tournament. If Michigan can’t play well on the road, a season full of high expectations will come crashing down in disappointment.