The joke this season has been mostly this – The Big Ten is the best conference in basketball, by far, except for Penn State, who were held winless in conference play until they hosted Michigan, who have looked pretty bad on the road this season and are slipping down the rankings since reaching number one.
So the Wolverines entered University Park as the #4 team in the nation and a 4-4 record on the road, losing four of their games in the last three and a half weeks, all of them away from home. What’s wrong? Defense. In the past seven games, Michigan has allowed 1.11 points per possession to its opposition. Two of these games, including the 84-78 recent lost to Penn State, came against the worst team in the conference.
It’s mostly the defense, but not alone. The Wolverines have averaged a 10-point loss in four road games this month. In those losses, they’ve made just 23 of 80 shots from behind the 3-point arc.
They had allowed opponents to make 48.9 percent of their two-point field goals, the highest percentage in the Big Ten, and they had blocked the fewest percentage of available shots (just 7.7%) of any team in the conference. According to Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency rankings, they’re 42nd in the nation in defensive efficiency. It’s simple, because it was predictable – John Beilein hasn’t coached a top-25 efficiency defense in his career. Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway do have the games when they mesh well with the youngsters, but without getting stops, it doesn’t really matter.
Tonight, it’s a relief. All the hard work, practices and shootarounds paid off for us. I was looking around. I wanted to see our team. I wanted to embrace it and be in that moment because those moments don’t come very often.
And if that wasn’t enough, their stat backcourt was outplayed by Penn State’s duo of D.J. Newbill and Jermaine Marshall. Marshall, a Junior averaging 15.4 points per game, scored 25 points to lead the way. Newbill, a sophomore, averaging 15.9 per game this season, was second best with 17 points.
The ball finally bounced our way. Trey Burke strips D.J. at halfcourt and kicks it out of bounds … that’s usually what we do.
Sometimes differences between teams aren’t that great, and luck, or simple randomness, is more of a factor than we like to think of it. It’s something we can’t explain, so why bother? Penn State are clearly the worst team in the Big Ten – you don’t reach 0-14 without having a short squad, but it usually has to do with something else – some snowball effect that keep on piling and it’s impossible to escape, unless you have belief and faith in yourself. It also takes a team like Michigan, that enjoyed a 20-1 start to the season to put themselves on the overrated couch, but finding life on the road and in the conference a bit harder than they imagined.