Ten days ago, Michigan basketball led by as many as 37 points against Minnesota.
But college basketball is notoriously fickle. What happens in one contest is far from guaranteed to repeat itself the next time the two teams play. Which brings us to Saturday’s rematch, with the Wolverines suffering their first loss of the season in blowout fashion in Minneapolis.
In its three previous games, Michigan became the first team ever to win three consecutive games against ranked teams by at least 19 points. They hardly looked like the same team Saturday in their 75-57 loss.
In a season where the Wolverines have looked superior to nearly every opponent, they finally came back down to earth.
A SLOPPY SATURDAY:Michigan loses first game in mistake-filled blowout at Minnesota
“It’s the first loss, but you gotta credit your opponent,” forward Isaiah Livers said. “Minnesota was ready, we weren’t ready. Weren’t ready from the start. Didn’t come out with intensity. Guys kinda lacked some focus.”
Just how did Michigan lose by so much?
For one, the offense could not stop turning the ball over. A good portion of the Wolverines’ giveaways were unforced, with needlessly dangerous or errant passes. In the first half, Michigan had more turnovers (11) than made field goals (10); the second half wasn’t much better, with 10 and 12, respectively.
In the first meeting between the two teams, the Wolverines dominated Minnesota’s two stars. Freshman center Hunter Dickinson scored a career-high 28 points and essentially played Minnesota’s Liam Robbins off the court. That dynamic completely flipped Saturday. Robbins scored a game-high 22 points on 8-for-13 shooting and was the best player on the floor. He had eight rebounds, two blocks, two steals and made all three of his 3-point attempts.
Dickinson, meanwhile, was either throwing the ball away or tethered to the bench. He scored a season-low nine points and had five turnovers while dealing with constant double teams in the post; perhaps as a result of his carelessness, he played just 23 minutes.
“What I saw was every time he was trying to make plays that were not there,” coach Juwan Howard said. “This is a good learning tool for him to go back and — which we will — watch film.”
The easy baskets down low from Dickinson (and the open shots for other players when defenses double-team the post) that have been a steady diet of Michigan’s offense disappeared — and the Wolverines didn’t have a replacement.
“As a freshman, those are mistakes that come with it,” Livers said of Dickinson.
“He’s always been the dominator, the centerpiece, the guy who has the most points, rebounds, blocks, guy who’s been the focal point. Today, it was tough. Robbins, (Eric) Curry, (Sam) Freeman. They all gave him different looks, double teams. Bothered the hell out of him.
“Hunter’s a smart kid, though. Like everybody else on this team, he’s resilient. He’s gonna get back, watch film. He’s gonna shake his head like we’re all gonna do at our performances, but he’s gonna keep digging, keep grinding.”
The other key matchup went Minnesota’s way, too. Although Marcus Carr made just six of 18 shots, he scored 17 points and dished out six assists. Every basket Carr made felt like it either halted a Michigan surge or started a Minnesota run. That was, again, completely different from the teams’ first meeting, when Carr scored 14 points on 5-for-16 shooting. In that game, he was mostly defended by guard Eli Brooks, Michigan’s top defender who missed Saturday’s game with a strained right foot.
Not only did Brooks’ absence hurt U-M’s defense, but it had a somewhat catastrophic effect on substitutions. Michigan had to play point guard Mike Smith (the only other guard in the rotation) 37 minutes, including all 20 in the first half, while sixth man Chaundee Brown slid into the starting lineup.
Brown held his own, aside from one quick stretch in the second half when he picked up two fouls, but moving him into the starting lineup hurt Michigan’s bench. When Brown was lifted with Michigan trailing, 41-35, in the second half, Juwan Howard called upon freshman guard Zeb Jackson, who had played 40 minutes all season. In a disastrous shift, Jackson took and missed two 3s and then threw the ball away after Michigan had forced a turnover. Minnesota went on a 7-0 run and never looked back.
“That was supposed to be our run,” Livers said. “That was key. We were down all game, that was us scratching and digging back. You gotta credit their coaching staff. They had a great game-plan. They were prepared. Like I said, we weren’t prepared from the start. They were prepared for the second half. They came out hitting us first.”
Pinning the loss on Jackson’s nine minutes, of course, is hardly fair. But Michigan’s inability to cobble together a rotation without Brooks, one of only two dependable ball-handlers and guards on the roster, showed how fragile life can be for high-major basketball teams — even the nation’s best. And the rest of the Wolverines’ issues, from the turnovers to Dickinson’s quiet game, show that, despite its stellar past month, it still has plenty to learn.
“This loss right here is a loss that we’re gonna learn from,” Howard said. “I expect our guys to be ready to play next game.”