Ann Arbor, Mich. – Bring up Michigan’s early struggles, and you hear John Beilein cite the team’s youth.
This season’s Wolverines feature two freshmen, two sophomores and an underperforming junior in the starting five for most of the year, and only one other junior and one senior on the roster.
The absence of veterans isn’t new for the Wolverines. Two years ago, a baby-faced squad went all the way to the NCAA title game. Last season’s team went to the Elite Eight on the strength of a senior big man, a freshman point guard and a handful of game-changing sophomores. After a 75-72 loss to Kentucky ended that run, seven Wolverines would pack their bags and leave Ann Arbor.
All-America Nik Stauskas? He’s with the Sacramento Kings now. Talented wing Glenn Robinson III? You can find him in the Timberwolves locker room. Mitch McGary, following midseason back surgery and a positive marijuana test, decided to bolt for the pros as well, landing with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Starting big Jordan Morgan used up his availability. Steady backup Jon Horford transferred to Florida.
“Over half our team was not on this team last year,” Beilein said. “So our young guys are forced to play very mature roles at a very young age.”
That’s been true for a while, but every group of youngsters is different — just ask Kentucky’s John Calipari, a coach known for corralling some of the nation’s top freshmen and making runs, or not. Some groups snap together as naturally as magnets. Others take time, and massaging, to get there. Some, well, never do.
Which is the Wolverines’ fate? The week ahead should go a long way toward determining that. A desperate Gophers team visits Saturday, and Michigan can expect their scrappiest effort. Three days later, the Wolverines travel to Ohio State to face their hot rival.
The Wolverines, who welcomed a 26th-ranked recruiting class according to Rivals, were expected to take a step back this season. Instead, they have taken about 10.
A preseason No. 24 ranking was quickly forgotten after a four-game losing streak that included back-to-back home losses to NJIT and Eastern Michigan. The Wolverines (9-6, 1-2 Big Ten) had lost five of seven before Tuesday’s 73-64 victory at Penn State.
Even with a stellar offensive performance against the Nittany Lions, Michigan is shooting only 42.6 percent from the floor. The Wolverines are among the worst in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage.
It was enough for ESPN’s Dana O’Neil to name Michigan the Big Ten’s most disappointing team in a column this week.
That expected stars Zak Irvin and Caris LeVert have been inconsistent at best probably has something to do with it. Irvin, a 6-6 sophomore, has disappeared at times. LeVert, a preseason All-Big Ten selection, has failed to score in double digits in four of the past six games.
Both, however, are showing signs they are ready to come out of their slumps. In Happy Valley, Irvin had perhaps his best game of the year, adding nine rebounds to 17 points. LeVert scored 18 points on 6-for-8 shooting.
Beilein is hoping the meager renaissance — along with a lineup change that replaced freshman Kameron Chatman with junior Spike Albrecht — will help this bunch snap together before it’s too late.
“The basket is getting a little bigger now for some of our guys,” Beilein told local media. “It’s not going in like the way it will hopefully in the future, but it seems to be a little bit better. They’re a little smoother in stroke.”
Big Ten Power Poll
Wisconsin (15-1, 3-0): The only remaining undefeated team in conference play, as expected.
Maryland (14-2, 2-1): The Terrapins got their first taste of “road games in the Big Ten are tough” at Illinois.
Purdue (10-6, 2-1): After opening 2-0 at home, the Boilermakers scared Wisconsin in Madison on Wednesday.
Michigan State (11-5, 2-1): If senior guard Travis Trice is indeed out of his slump, the Spartans will gain steam.
Iowa (11-5, 2-1): If the Hawkeyes can learn how to play second-half ball, watch out.
Ohio State (13-3, 2-1): The Buckeyes aren’t without their flaws, but they boast an offense packed with scorers.
Illinois (11-5, 1-2): A home upset vs. Maryland was huge, but how long will they be without injured top scorer Rayvonte Rice?
Indiana (11-4, 1-1): Had big victories in nonconference play but looked nowhere close at Michigan State.
Michigan (9-6, 2-1): Things could be a lot worse, but the Wolverines are still waiting for that first quality victory.
Minnesota (11-5, 0-3): The Gophers haven’t started 0-3 since 2011-12, my first season on the college basketball beat.
Nebraska (9-6, 1-2): The Cornhuskers are running out of time to prove they are elite.
Northwestern (10-5, 1-1): We won’t really know who the Wildcats are until they head to Michigan State on Sunday.
Rutgers (9-7, 1-2): Eddie Jordan should probably savor the Penn State victory. There might not be any more coming.
Penn State (12-4,0-3): The Nittany Lions went 12-1 in nonconference play. Is there growth yet to come?
OK, Purdue, whatcha got? The Boilermakers played within a handful of possessions at undisputed Big Ten favorite No. 4 Wisconsin on Wednesday night before losing 62-55. This, after conference victories over the Gophers and Michigan to start the year. Ready for the big time, are they? We’ll find out a little more Saturday when the Boilermakers — with perhaps the roughest two-game stretch in the league — travel to No. 11 Maryland.
A bite of McIntosh: One Big Ten freshman not many are talking about is Northwestern’s Bryant McIntosh, and understandably so with the Wildcats expected to be among the league’s worst. But the 6-foot-3 guard has been a steady scorer, reaching double digits in each of the past eight games. After hitting opposite ends of the conference scale with Rutgers and Wisconsin, Northwestern will get its most telling matchup Saturday at East Lansing.
Cooking without Rice: The news of Illinois star senior wing Rayvonte Rice’s broken left hand Monday came at a terrible time for the Illini, who were struggling to make good on apparent improvements a year ago.
They made a big statement on Wednesday, knocking off No. 11 Maryland at home without Rice. Now, Illinois will try to keep the momentum going when the Illini head to Nebraska on Sunday.
‘Big Three’ watch
A weekly update on Minnesotans Tyus Jones (Apple Valley, Duke), Reid Travis (DeLaSalle, Stanford) and Rashad Vaughn (Cooper, UNLV):
Vaughn scored a game-high 20 points and hit final-minute free throws to tie rival Nevada-Reno, but UNLV still lost its third in a row 64-62.
Jones finished with only eight points in Duke’s 73-65 win over Wake Forest to remain undefeated, but the Apple Valley product had the game’s highest offensive rating.
Travis remains out because of a leg stress fracture.