March 15, 2013

Borton's Blog: Tough enough?

The question will linger throughout the weekend and right on into the NCAA Tournament … can Michigan toughen up enough on defense, and with physical play in general, to justify a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament?

They're assured of that status, at 26-7 on the season. But they're assured of little else, after taking it on the chin in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament by a Wisconsin team which couldn't throw it in Lake Michigan from the Navy Pier in the first half.

Those first 20 minutes? Sure, it was Wisconsin basketball - uglier than a "Before" photo of a Biggest Loser contestant adorned in Spandex. But Michigan still managed to play that game, scrambling up a 18-10 lead through the opening 18:42 even with their own array of bricklaying.

The Wolverines' 34.5 percent shooting in the first half felt white hot compared to Wisconsin's 17.2 percent, the Badgers appearing ready to make the short trip home to Madison. The only question involved whether they'd miss as many turns as shots, and end up in Oregon.

In the second half, the Badgers played like sharp offense actually exists in Cheeseville, shooting 60.7 percent from the field, 66.7 percent from three-point range. Bo Ryan's team didn't sudden turn into a crew of deadeyes.

Hence the concern, from John Beilein on down.

"We just really have to grow defensively," Beilein said. "There are so many things you have to continue to get better at and all it takes, with a team like this that isolates you so much, it takes one breakdown here or there and they're scoring points. The second half, they scored at will. So that will be the big thing.

"We'll fix it the best we can. We have been trying all year long. There's a process that we all have to go through to get better at it and hopefully we can shore up enough to continue playing for a long time."

Thirty-three games into the season, and just days away from the start of the NCAA Tournament, that endorsement falls a little shy of Queme los Barcos.

The Wolverines got their boat burned out from under them by the Badgers, and any physical, muck-it-up team drawing the Wolverines early in the Dance will draw confidence from what they saw in Michigan's most recent film.

That said, the Wolverines aren't conceding anything.

"Wisconsin is a good team," insisted freshman big man Mitch McGary. "In the first half, we played outstanding defense. I think we'll be all right with tough, blue-collar teams such as Wisconsin. If we play a team like that in the first or second round, with a slower pace of play but nitty gritty, we'll be okay, as long as we get down on the defensive end and get stops.

"People call us soft, but down low, we're starting to get a lot more rebounds and put some bodies on people, box people out. On offense, we go to the rack and get some fouls."

Redshirt sophomore Jon Horford isn't buying the lack-of-toughness tag, either.

"I don't necessarily think that's going to be our downfall going forward," he said. "Obviously, we've kind of struggled with that, but we're fully capable of playing against teams like that and coming out with the win. I have full confidence that when we do face teams like that, and we will face teams like that in the tournament, we'll be successful.

"It all starts with defense. We've got to get better defensively. We've got to limit post touches. We've got to be in the gaps. We've got to contest shots better."

That's a lot of got-tos in a really short span. But as far as having the grit necessary to dig in and play defense, while combatting the nastier, more physical opponents, the Wolverines still enter a higher level of tournament play defiant.

"We can be just as physical as teams," freshman Glenn Robinson III insisted. "We've shown that. We showed it against Indiana. Everything might not fall our way, but I know we can be just as physical and we'll give them our best shot."

There isn't another shot this season, if the Wolverines don't see things fall their way. For sophomore point guard Trey Burke, there probably won't be another shot in a Michigan uniform.

Such realities increase the desperation level. They don't always produce improved execution.

So a team that reached No. 1 in the polls at one point in the season winds up as the No. 5 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, limping home from Chicago on day two. Questions … they've got more than a 5-year-old watching his dad work on a carburetor.

March is all about finding answers, U-M assistant coach Bacari Alexander cautioned. It's about match-ups, making one's own breaks, and marching on.

Maybe the best break of all involves getting away from other teams in the toughest conference in America.

"It's a two-way street," Alexander said. "Teams are in trouble by playing us as well, in the sense that they haven't seen our players, our scheme, our methodology, which is very tough to defend against. When you get in that NCAA Tournament, anything can happen.

"One thing I want to inject in our guys at this stage of the game is confidence and enthusiasm. That can carry over and give us some momentum. You get past that first game, anything can happen."

The Big Dance breathes new life into everyone involved. But if the Wolverines endure another Wisconsin-type second half, their season won't be breathing at all.

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