For the third year in a row, a trip to NCAA Tournament is questionable for the Michigan Wolverines.
On Feb. 23rd, 2014, Nik Stauskas exploded in the second half, tallying 25 points to lead Michigan to its first season series sweep of Michigan State since 2011. It was the Wolverines’ sixth win in the last eight tries against the Spartans.
During that stretch, Michigan booked a trip to the 2013 NCAA final and then marched to the Elite Eight the following year. Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin were on that squad that lost to Kentucky in the Elite Eight, and were given a bigger role the next season as Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III bolted for the NBA. Walton and Irvin both got a taste of what it felt like to make a deep tournament run, and also how it felt to own the state of Michigan in basketball. There was hope, that with the help of Caris LeVert, they could lead this team to more success.
Injuries meet reality
Many of us have lost that hope over the last two and a half seasons.
Last weekend, Michigan dropped to Michigan State, 70-62 — marking the Wolverines fifth straight loss to the Spartans. Walton showed up, he scored 24 points while adding nine rebounds and five assists. Meanwhile, Irvin (who reportedly had the flu) finished 0-for-8 from the field.
It’s been the same story all season, and for the last three seasons for that matter. Michigan relies on key guys to win basketball games. Before this season, it was Caris LeVert. LeVert was a good player that simply never saw enough time on the court due to injuries. Over his final two seasons, he only played 35 total games, leaving John Beilein to have to look elsewhere. So he did.
Now it’s Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin who should be the key pieces on the court. But this season, whenever one shows up, the other seems to vanish, and it’s been that way for most of their years at Michigan. It would be ideal if both could put on a show on a regular basis. If you ask me, Irvin and Walton are the perfect examples of talent that hasn’t developed. The two haven’t seemed to get better year-to-year, and that’s a problem for Michigan.
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman serves as another great example. After a solid season just one year ago, he’s only averaging 7.9 points per game and seems to be non-factor in most contests — at least in comparison to what we expected to see this season.
Solving the problem at hand
So who should we be pointing fingers at? Is it John Beilein, the players that left early/transferred, or simply the fact that current talent hasn’t developed as we thought it would?
Moe Wagner and and DJ Wilson look to be on the rise, but both are still relatively inexperienced. There is more to come from the big men, and we might even see it this season. Either way, Michigan needs others to step up if the Wolverines want a chance to extend their season beyond the Big Ten Tournament.
As we see it now, Michigan sits on the NCAA Tournament bubble once again, hoping for some pre-March magic. At 14-8 overall and 4-5 in the Big Ten, they have had some solid wins at home. However, they are currently 0-6 on the road, a stat that the committee will tear apart. Time is running out — not just on Michigan — but on Irvin, Walton and Beilein.
The Wolverines have nine games left in the regular season, and it’s full of tough competition in the conference. Competition that can be beat, however, especially in a year where every team seems to have on and off nights.
Michigan still has plenty of Big Ten powerhouses on the schedule: Michigan State, Indiana, Wisconsin and Purdue to name a few. All wins are key moving forward, and all losses will sting more than the last.
For Irvin and Walton, the rematch with Michigan State might be their last chance to beat Sparty — a win that would mean the world to them, and a lot to a program looking to make a run.
Leaving a legacy
For the sake of whatever legacy the seniors leave in Ann Arbor, there is still time to make it a lasting one. A chance to win back the fans, and an opportunity for late-season momentum. How the rest of the season plays out is also crucial for the future of the program. As guys move on from the program, new guys come in. Guys like Izzo have been able to reload on a regular basis, so Michigan needs something to point to in the recent years to prove that Ann Arbor is still the place to play.
Because if we are being completely honest, Michigan hasn’t done much of anything since 2014.