Long-term physicality concerns emerge in Michigan’s ugly loss to Minnesota

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It’s no secret that Minnesota entered this season with low expectations. With a first-year head coach and a roster of mostly newcomers, the Golden Gophers were a distant last-place selection in the Big Ten men’s basketball preseason poll.

So when Minnesota walked out of Crisler Center with an eye-opening 75-65 win on Saturday night, Michigan coach Juwan Howard was understandably frustrated. Hunched over behind a Crisler Center podium after the game, his eyes darted to one specific indicator on the box score.

“You’ve got to look at the defensive end,” Howard said. “That right there was not a defensive effort, (and) I felt we could’ve done a much, much better job with 40 minutes. We can’t have those moments where we have good possessions where we defend and then not defend five or six possessions. There was just too much inconsistency today.”

Down the stretch, the Wolverines’ defense let them down. The Gophers cruised to 43 second-half points on 64% shooting, including a 12-for-15 mark from within the 3-point arc. At one point, they went on a 13-2 run and made eight of nine shots over a five-minute stretch.

Hampered by a lack of help defense and poor rotations, Michigan offered little resistance at the rim. And even when the Wolverines stopped the drive outside the paint, they struggled to contest mid-range jumpers.

“You’re going to get beat when you’re closing out to shooters,” fifth-year guard Eli Brooks said. “We just have to be in the positions and trust that we’ll help the helper. I think that’s something we can buy into more, just being in our spots and trusting the people around us.”

But Michigan struggled to do that on Saturday night, especially against the duo of Minnesota’s Jamison Battle and Payton Willis, who combined for 44 points on 17-of-31 shooting. The Gophers seldom had difficulty getting where they wanted to go, repeatedly killing closeouts and blowing by help defenders. As the Wolverines’ defense unraveled, Battle poured in 21 second-half points.

“We didn’t make anything challenging for him at all,” Howard said. “He was just too comfortable in the second half.”

Ultimately, Minnesota forced Howard’s hand. Down 16 late in the second half, when it was clear the Wolverines’ man-to-man defense couldn’t hold up, he made the call to switch to a zone.

At the time, it was an in-game adjustment Michigan needed in order to stay afloat. Big-picture, though, it’s a testament to the Wolverines’ lack of physicality.

“I just don’t think we were the most physical team out there,” Brooks said. “We let them move freely, and that’s one of our key points on defense, making them feel us. We just didn’t do that tonight.”

Michigan lost just three games during the entire regular season last year. Not even halfway through December, the Wolverines already lost four this season. Asked where Michigan must improve in order to play championship-level basketball, Brooks didn’t hesitate.

“Just being more physical,” Brooks said. “It’s different. This is not high school basketball. This is not a different conference. The Big Ten is about physicality. You get that every night, so just embracing that challenge every single night.”

Added Howard: “In this league, you have to have a certain type of grit about you if you want to play in the Big Ten.”

But on Saturday night, the Wolverines lacked that grit. And now, they’re paying the price of an early-season stain on their conference record.

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