Michigan’s process of adjusting to key personnel losses hasn’t been a smooth one

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Caris LeVert (AP Photo)

TUCSON — The last four seasons under John Beilein have been the most successful at Michigan since the 1990’s, with the Wolverines winning an average of 26 games per season, a pair of Big Ten regular season titles and a trip to the 2013 national title game. During that run, the Wolverines were able to account for the premature loss of key players, with Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. grabbing the reins following the departure of Darius Morris, and a talented group led by Nik Stauskas doing so once Burke and Hardaway moved on to the NBA.

The consensus this preseason was that this current group, led by junior Caris LeVert and sophomores Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin, would be able to do the same. LeVert was a preseason all-american. Walton and Irvin? They were high-profile recruits with a year of college hoops under their belts, primed for a breakout season.

Things haven’t worked out that way, as the Wolverines have now lost three consecutive games, the most recent — an 80-53 loss on national television to No. 3 Arizona Saturday evening in Tucson — being only marginally less embarrassing than homes losses to Eastern Michigan and NJIT.

Expected to be every bit as competitive as last season’s meeting, a 72-70 Wildcat victory in Ann Arbor, Saturday’s game saw Arizona look every bit a national title contender. This Michigan team is still in search of an identity, the biggest issue on Saturday being their most glaring problem: The Wolverines have yet to find a consistent option in the middle.

That may seem weird considering that the loss of Jordan Morgan didn’t receive nearly as much attention as Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary bolting to the NBA. But Morgan was a valuable player for those Wolverines, making 27 starts and averaging 6.4 points and 5.0 rebounds per contest as a senior.

Morgan’s numbers may not have been eye-popping but he was consistent for the Wolverines. Offensively he was a capable passer in the high post, and he also did a solid job of finishing at the basket in pick-and-roll situations. Also good on the glass (remove McGary’s average through the eight games he played and Morgan led the team in rebounding), Morgan defended his position well for the Wolverines. In short, Morgan performed at a level that Michigan’s current big men have yet yo reach on a consistent basis.

It’s a bit unfair to use Saturday’s showing against a Mark Donnal (five points, one rebound) or Ricky Doyle (eight points, three rebounds). Arizona’s front court has multiple players whose names will likely be called by NBA commissioner Adam Silver at some point in the near future, and Doyle and Donnal are both playing their first season of college hoops.

Doyle displayed flashes of what he can do earlier this season, as he averaged 13.5 points and 6.0 rebounds in wins over Nicholls and Syracuse, but due in large part to their inexperience Michigan’s interior players haven’t been as consistent as one would like. Arizona scored 42 points in the paint Saturday, and while there were highlight-reel worthy dunks from wings Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson the Wildcat big men also proved to be an issue for the Wolverines.

“They have much bigger players, much more experienced players,” Beilein said after the game. “Our two freshman centers, Mark Donnal, Max Bielfeldt who’s a senior, and Ricky Doyle, were having trouble against the size of Tarczewski and [Brandon Ashley].”

But even with that being the case, Saturday’s contest proved to be a valuable one for the young Michigan big men as it gave them a good idea of what it takes to compete against some of the nation’s best big men.

“I really wanted to get Ricky as much [playing time] as we [could] to see what this level’s about,” Beilein said of Doyle. “It’s motivation now, it’s motivation all year. For him to see, ‘this is what the big boys play like, that’s what you have to learn to be able to do.’ There were really valuable small victories in some of the things he did.”

With Morgan out of eligibility and Jon Horford transferring to Florida, it was known that the Wolverines were going to be young in the paint this season. It’ll take time for the likes of Doyle and Donnal to develop into consistent players, as is the case for most freshmen in college basketball.

What that means is that Michigan may need to go with a lineup that allows them to exploit those mismatches for their perimeter players. But in order for that to be effective, Michigan has to use the resulting lanes to attack the basket and not simply settle for perimeter shots. Do that, and a team that ranks 12th in the Big Ten in free throw attempts (165) will be able to take advantage of the fact that they’re one of the conference’s best foul shooting teams (75.8%).

When it comes to Walton Jr. and Irvin, they’re making the transition from being part of a rotation one year to being critical pieces the next. LeVert went through that process last season, as his minutes tripled and he emerged as one of the most improved players in the Big Ten if not the country. With the lack of experience and consistent production inside those three have even more on their plates offensively, and the added attention is something they’ve had to battle this season. After being one of the best shooting teams in America last season, Michigan’s effective field goal percentage (55.7% to 50.1%) and three-point shooting (40.2% to 36.8%) are both way down this year.

According to Walton, the bigger concern is the team’s play on the defensive end, as Michigan is currently last in the Big Ten in both field goal (45.4%) and three-point (38.4%) percentage defense.

“I [don’t] think offense is the problem right now. I think it’s more so on the defensive end,” Walton Jr. said following Saturday’s loss. “[There are] just times when guys are falling asleep and missing boxouts and stuff like that. Film study will always help. At the end of the day this team needs to focus on the defensive end more than offense.”

After finding a way to account for the loss of key players with few major hiccups over the four seasons prior, that hasn’t been the case for Michigan in 2014-15. While losses to No. 7 Villanova and No. 3 Arizona will be understood given the caliber of those teams, a similar case can’t be made for their home losses to N.J.I.T. and Eastern Michigan. With finals this week, Michigan has just two games left to play (SMU and Coppin State) before they start Big Ten play December 30 against Illinois.

The time spent on the court and in the film room during this period will be vital for this group, as its most experienced options adjust to greater roles and the younger players work to become more comfortable not only with the system but also high-level Division I basketball. While the impulse for some may be to rush to judgment when it comes to this Michigan team, they’ve still got time to figure things out.

The process won’t be an easy one, as evidenced by their current three-game skid, but it is one the Wolverines are capable of navigating.