Michigan Basketball needs to play up to competition against Purdue

Feb 19, 2017; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Michigan Wolverines head coach John Beilein signals a play in the second half against the Minnesota Gophers at Williams Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 19, 2017; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Michigan Wolverines head coach John Beilein signals a play in the second half against the Minnesota Gophers at Williams Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports /

Michigan basketball plays Purdue Saturday in a game that could clinch a berth in the NCAA tournament for the Wolverines.

On Wednesday, Michigan basketball traveled to Rutgers and eked out a 68-64 victory over the Scarlet Knights. It was a rare road win for the Wolverines, only their second, and one that nearly slipped through their fingers.

The Scarlet Knights are 13-16, and 2-14 in the Big Ten. True, this is the best team Rutgers has fielded since joining the Big Ten. However, that’s only because this squad is the first to win more than 10 games.

A win is a win is a win, as they say. But it brings up a problem that has plagued the post Burke/Stauskas/Hardaway era of Michigan basketball.

The Wolverines cannot seem to help to playing to their level of competition. Against good teams, it’s a blessing. But against mediocre teams, Michigan struggles mightily.

The issue began in the injury-plagued 2014-2015 campaign. One could throw out this season, call it an anomaly, and move on.  Yet, it was early in the season when the evidence started to mount. Michigan was undefeated going into a near loss against #12 Villanova, setting the expectations high for the season.

Then, playing at full strength, Michigan lost to the largely unknown New Jersey Institute of Technology. Three days later, they scored only 42 points and lost to the lowly Eastern Michigan Eagles. Injuries largely rendered this season moot, but the problem began to show.

Last year, Michigan seemed to right the ship. They were putting away the teams they were supposed to. Their new problem was winning against the upper echelon teams that they usually played well against. Of the Wolverines’ thirteen losses, only four were against unranked opponents.

They did manage to snag a few big victories, against #3 Maryland, #10 Indiana, and #18 Purdue. Going into the new season, it seemed, all Michigan would need to do was win more games against ranked foes.

This year, Michigan basketball’s first two losses were against South Carolina and Virginia Tech. South Carolina was understandable, the Wolverines went cold against a top three SEC team. Virginia Tech is solid, but merely a middle of the pack ACC team. At 7-2, the Wolverines went into a shootout with #2 UCLA. Despite the Bruins pulling away late, Michigan showed that they had the firepower to hang with the best offenses in the country.

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Since then, the only “good” losses for the Wolverines were against #17 Wisconsin and a soon to be ranked Maryland squad. The rest, Michigan could have picked up.

The loss to Illinois is painful, especially after thoroughly dominating them in the second contest. The same story with MSU, even more so after the Wolverines beat the Spartans at home by 29. Michigan blew an 11 point first half lead against a 16-13 Ohio State game. And against Minnesota, the Wolverines lost to a team essentially their equal.

At this stage of the season, Michigan needs to establish consistency. That means the same intensity shown against Wisconsin is shown against Rutgers. Sure, Michigan can blame some losses on strange shooting slumps. But for Michigan to be a March team, they need to take better advantage of their opportunities. Win the games you’re supposed to, and play with that same confidence against ranked opponents.

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Which brings us to today. Michigan has a visit from #14 Purdue, the last home game of the season. It’s senior day for Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton, Mark Donnal, Andrew Dakich.Michigan has played well against ranked teams, but they’re 1-2 against the top 25. Today would be a resume builder. After that, they head to Evanston for a place they’ve owned over the Beilein era. Then to Nebraska to face a 12-15 Cornhusker team. Michigan controls their destiny. If they play their best games, they can hang with any team in the country. They just can’t let any team in the country hang with them.