The Wolverine

February 2020*

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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FEBRUARY 2020 THE WOLVERINE 45 first half before fading in a 75-67 loss, and up on Iowa by seven with eight minutes remaining before the Hawkeyes pulled out the win. But Michigan clearly missed Liv- ers' scoring punch down the stretch in each game, and Howard was ready to get him back. "We know no one is feeling sorry for us because we have missed one of our best players these last few games and we've lost games with- out him," Howard said. "At the end of the day, we've got to keep fight- ing, keep plugging." DEFENSE HAS BEEN A DISAPPOINTMENT Michigan had been good offen- sively in its first 17 games, third in the conference at 78.2 points per game be- hind only Iowa (79.9) and MSU (78.3). Senior center Jon Teske led the way with 14.3 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, followed by Livers at 13.6 points per contest, senior point guard Zavier Simpson at 12.2 points and 8.7 assists per outing (first in the nation), junior guard Eli Brooks at 11.2 points per game and freshman wing Franz Wagner at 10.3 points per contest. U-M was a disappointing 13th in the Big Ten for scoring defense, how- ever, allowing 69.8 points per game. It's been perplexing for a team that returned two All-Big Ten defensive players in Simpson and Teske. That is especially true of the 7-1 Teske, who dominated at times last year and was a rim protector in good portions of the non-conference slate (especially against Gonzaga), but has looked like a shell of himself since. He's always struggled while being left on an island, but the overall re- gression is hard to explain. In many ways, the Wolverines haven't strayed from what they've done in the recent past, taking away the three-point line (specifically). They were third in the nation, in fact, in three-point attempts allowed through 17 games. They're fouling more, though — Simpson and Teske's numbers spe- cifically were up dramatically — and opposing big men have been hav- ing a field day. They were averag- ing 30.2 points per game in Big Ten play, and the Wolverines' 72-percent clip allowed at the rim in conference play through five games would have ranked third from the bottom of 354 Division I teams. "Bigs have done a phenomenal job scoring against us," Howard said. "Overall, I'm not going to tell you what our game plan is." Most, though, were aware — they weren't going to double the post. They switched it up a bit in the second meeting with Iowa's Luka Garza, who scored 44 in the first meeting with U-M in December, but Garza still scored 33 in the 90-83 win over U-M Jan. 17 that dropped U-M to 2-4 in conference play. "I have a lot of coaches out there that are listening. I listen to their press conferences to see what I can find," Howard said. "We're just go- ing to keep competing, competing hard, and get to the drawing board these next few days and look at film and see where we can get better." He promised to look deeper into the Wolverines' defensive woes. "Of course. I always re-evaluate," he said. "I'm always about growth mindset." Some of that growth might include taking a closer look at what's worked in the past. It hurts not having elite de- fender Charles Matthews, of course, but Brooks has improved dramati- cally on the defensive end and played well. Though he struggled through a 1-of-14 showing from long range heading into the Iowa game, Brooks broke out for a 25-point effort by go- ing 9 of 17 from the floor and 5 of 11 from three-point range in addition to enjoying a strong defensive game. "The beauty of it, which doesn't show up in box scores, is Eli's been one of our best defenders," Howard said. "Usually you have a guy who [if he] doesn't make shots, forgets about playing defense on the other end, be- cause he gets so frustrated with the shots not going in, or shooting 1 for 7 from the three-point line. "Eli has been the competitor that we've asked him to be. He's shown that he's dependable. I'm very happy with Eli. He's one of our leaders, and I'm just proud of his performance." Other guys can and should take it more personally on that end like Brooks, Wagner said. "We can improve with our one-on- one defense," he said. "Take pride in stopping your guy." Even Simpson hasn't looked like the same defender, having been skew- ered at times off the dribble by both Oregon's Payton Pritchard and MSU's Cassius Winston. They'll improve when Livers re- turns, but until then — and probably even then — the Wolverines need to adjust. If they don't, what was once a very promising season could end up being a struggle just to make the NCAA Tournament. ❏ MICHIGAN'S BIG TEN STARTS OVER THE LAST 10 YEARS Record Through Final Big Ten Year Six Games Record (Place) 2010-11 1-5 9-9 (T4th) 2011-12 4-2 13-5 (T1st) 2012-13 5-1 12-6 (T4th) 2013-14 6-0 15-3 (1st) 2014-15 4-2 8-10 (9th) 2015-16 4-2 11-7 (T7th) 2016-17 2-4 10-8 (T5th) 2017-18 3-3 15-5 (3rd) 2018-19 6-0 15-5 (3rd) 2019-20 2-4 ? Michigan has struggled defensively early in the season, most notably against oppos- ing big men. Iowa's Luka Garza torched the Wolverines for 38.5 points per game in two matchups versus U-M and senior center Jon Teske (above). PHOTO BY LON HORWEDEL

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