Michigan basketball isn’t great yet. But Saturday’s loss gives it a road map there – Detroit Free Press

Michigan basketball has a couple of future pros on its roster. Maybe more than a couple. And yet it’s not the talent that makes this team so tantalizing and, potentially, so special. 

It’s the supreme effort defensively. It’s the unselfishness offensively. It’s the experience and savvy despite the new pieces. It’s the connectedness — especially the connectedness.  

Without it, the Wolverines can lose by 18 (after trailing by 23) and get run off the floor by a team it punished a couple of weeks earlier — a team that made only four of its 18 three-point attempts, by the way, which should tell you that Saturday’s loss to Minnesota didn’t come by otherworldly shooting.  

Instead, it came by effort. 

As Isaiah Livers, the team sage, noted after his Wolverines lost, 75-57, in Minneapolis: “We weren’t ready. We didn’t come out with that intensity. Guys kind of lacked some focus.” 

Michigan Wolverines guard Mike Smith drives to the basket as Minnesota guard Both Gach defends during the first half at Williams Arena in Minneapolis, Jan. 16, 2021.

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Minnesota did not. 

It really was that simple. U-M didn’t match Minnesota’s energy. And that can’t happen, the Wolverines now know, and as Juwan Howard said after the game. 

“They were ready to compete today,” he said. “We didn’t do a very good job of competing. That means me included.” 

Give him credit for taking the blame. But give him credit, too, for establishing such a high standard with the Wolverines that it’s noticeable when they aren’t quite flying around as they have the last few weeks. 

These Wolverines are gifted, but not so much that a dip in competitive spirit won’t matter. This isn’t (yet) a program of lottery picks. Then again, even a team of lottery picks will struggle without its emotional and defensive leader, as U-M did without Eli Brooks.

“He’s a guy that’s a huge part of our success,” said Howard. 

He’s averaging just under nine points a game, but he is a threat offensively from deep, and that helps space the floor. Beyond that, he organizes the offense in subtle ways. For example, setting away screens to free shooters, as Livers pointed out. 

Or slipping entry passes to the post, a pass that looks easy but is not. U-M turned the ball over twice this way Saturday. In total, the Wolverines turned it over 20 times, which led to Golden Gopher dunks on the other end and, just as important, stopped the Wolverines from accruing momentum. 

Michigan Wolverines head coach Juwan Howard reacts during the first half against Minnesota at Williams Arena in Minneapolis, Jan. 16, 2021.

And yet as much as Brooks was missed on that end of the floor, it was the lack of his defensive presence that hurt most. He is the team’s best on-ball defender, and his aggressive, pestering style sets an infectious standard. 

It’s not that his teammates didn’t try to replicate his disruptiveness —Franz Wagner did his best to clog the lanes — it’s just that the whole wasn’t quite the same.  

As Livers said, Brooks’ “IQ is a different level.” 

And against good teams on the road, especially a team stinging from a humbling loss at Crisler Center a couple of weeks ago, the loss of that basketball savvy is costly. 

Still, not having Brooks shouldn’t mean a 20-point loss. The Wolverines are capable of matching — or exceeding — a team’s competitive level from the tip. More than anything, this is what Howard will talk about and work on the next few days. 

Well, that and how to help Hunter Dickinson rebound from his most frustrating outing of the season. The last time he faced Minnesota, he dropped 28 and outplayed Liam Robbins, the Golden Gophers’ 7-footer.  

Richard Pitino wasn’t going to let Dickinson beat his team that way again. He designed double-teams, sometimes triple-teams, to crowd U-M’s star freshman all game. 

It worked, both in limiting Dickinson’s shot attempts — he finished 4-for-5 shooting — and in causing confusion, as he had five turnovers.  

This is part of the learning curve, obviously. How to navigate different strategies, how to slow the game down and make the right decision when the shot isn’t available.  

Pitino gambled that his own team’s effort would be enough to rotate from the double teams and close out on U-M’s shooters, and that in the scramble, his team might force turnovers. Give him credit for adjusting. 

Howard knows that other coaches will study what Minnesota did, particularly teams with length on the block and quickness on the perimeter. He also knows that Dickinson will learn from Saturday. 

So does Livers. 

“That’s my guy,” he said.  

But? 

“He has to grow. He’s probably never been in that frustration spot.” 

Minnesota center Liam Robbins dunks as Michigan Wolverines center Hunter Dickinson looks on during the first half at Williams Arena in Minneapolis, Jan. 16, 2021.

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Neither has the team. Yet, as Howard said, no one inside the locker room expected to go undefeated this season.  

And so, they won’t. And that’s just fine. These sorts of losses can be extraordinarily helpful in January. It’s not the worst thing in the world to get a reminder of what was working so well.  

Howard said his team will learn from its first loss of the season. There should be no doubt. But don’t just take his word. Consider the bench late in the game, when Terrance Williams II made a lay-up, and several stood up to clap and cheer.  

U-M was down 19 at that point with a minute and change left, and the spirit was undeniable. That should tell you plenty about the state of the squad. 

And where it is ultimately headed.  

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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