Last season, Michigan basketball won the Big Ten, secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and danced all the way to the Elite Eight.
Meanwhile, Tarleton State played its first season as a Division I program.
In a game that was even closer than the 65-54 win over Tarleton State on Wednesday suggests, U-M once again proved that its mix of returning talent and five-star recruits aren’t ready to replace Franz Wagner, Isaiah Livers and Mike Smith in defending its Big Ten title just yet.
After shooting a woeful 1-for-14 from the 3-point line on Sunday against Arizona and struggling to find reliable scoring options, Michigan coach Juwan Howard told reporters that his players were out of synchand not on the same page as to which play is being run.
Michigan Wolverines head coach Juwan Howard on the sideline during the second half against the Tarleton State Texans at Crisler Center on Nov. 24, 2021.
That sentiment seemed to carry over into Wednesday; the Wolverines were a turnover machine.
In the game’s first possession, an entry pass from Brandon Johns Jr. to the right post found Hunter Dickinson triple teamed, leading to an easy turnover. The play set the tone for the game, where U-M totaled 10 turnovers through the first 10 minutes, canceling out its hot start from the field and keeping the game close. Ball security issues extended into the second half, leaving Michigan with a worrisome 21 turnovers on the night.
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“Some of the passes that we were making were, I would say in a respectful way, mindless,” Howard said. “Forcing when it wasn’t available. … We were forcing it into traffic, and that can’t happen.”
At times, however, turnovers remained a product of miscommunication and incohesive play. Near the midway mark of the first half, Moussa Diabate held the ball on the top of the key, looking to pass to Caleb Houstan on the left sideline. The two freshmen weren’t on the same page, as Houstan began to cut towards the basket just as Diabate threw it toward Houstan’s original location.
Michigan Wolverines guard Frankie Collins (10) dribbles defended by Tarleton State Texans guard Shakur Daniel in the first half at Crisler Center on Nov. 24, 2021.
Houstan shifted back, but couldn’t fight his momentum in time. The ball sailed out of bounds for U-M’s ninth turnover with only 11:55 left in the first half. Moments like that highlight the growing pains for the Wolverines’ young prospects, growing pains that nearly led to an embarrassing upset loss at home.
“Slowing down a little bit, it’s making the easy pass, not always the home run play,” Houstan said when asked about ways to better handle ball pressure and limit turnovers. “… Just making the right pass instead of making, like, the big play.”
Despite the turnovers, Michigan built a 16 point lead in the second half. Its inexperience in managing games and an encore of subpar first-half performance let the Texans right back in, bringing the game within three with less than five minutes left.
Seizing complete control of the game, only to give Tarleton State a legitimate chance to win the game, is a product of the growing pains the Wolverines face, and will continue to face, as the young season progresses. Whether they can overcome those growing pains and become a national contender is an answer that will come with time.
“I think that’s really our communication,” Diabate said of the blown 16-point advantage. “We started to get tired, we started to stop talking, (we didn’t have) the same energy.”
Michigan Wolverines forward Caleb Houstan (22) is defended by Tarleton State Texans guard Tahj Small in the second half at Crisler Center on Nov. 24, 2021.
Despite the sloppy offensive performance and poor game management, Michigan was able to respond and win. Even against an inferior opponent, handling adversity and winning close games does count for something.
“There’s always teachable moments,” Howard said. “And I think that was a teachable moment for us.”
With 21 turnovers, the Wolverines had plenty of teachable moments.
If they want to find any real success this season, they had better learn fast.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan basketball’s latest win can’t mask offensive issues