John Beilein couldn't ask for more from his outsized Michigan team in Tuesday's latest home loss to Illinois - the Wolverines held a team averaging 68 points in Big Ten play to 51, stifling the Illini offense. But he had no answer for his squad's second straight anemic shooting performance in a 51-44 loss following two impressive road wins.
What was supposed to be an opportunity to move up in the standings with two games at home following wins at Minnesota and Iowa instead became a debacle. The U-M shooters turned open looks into bricks, lay-ups and shorties into head shaking misses in a loss that dropped the Wolverines to 6-9 in the conference, 13-14 overall.
"I should ask you questions," a bewildered Beilein quipped to reporters at the postgame podium. "I haven't seen anything like this before where we put the whole package together today. We had a ton of great shots, 50 percent from the foul line (6-of-12), six or seven missed lay-ups.
"The kids played their tails off. Look at Illinois, which has won at Wisconsin, beat Michigan State. They are a very good team. We guarded the heck out of them, did everything we had to do, and the basket's [very small] for a couple guys. I'll try and help the best I can … just try and practice well, be positive, really try to do that much more in the last month."
But there's not much more he can do for a few. Senior DeShawn Sims struggled inside early, missing some point blank shots within three feet and three of four free throws for the game, while junior Manny Harris uncharacteristically missed three lay-ups in a row (had he made all three, the Wolverines could have been tied at 48 down the stretch instead of down six).
Sophomore guard Stu Douglass had looks so wide open behind the arc he could have tied his shoes before firing, yet finished 0-for-8 from the floor (0-for-5 from three-point range). He wasn't alone in the Wolverines' 6-for-31 three-point effort.
"He's not the Lone Ranger here," said Beilein. "Laval [Lucas-Perry, 0-for-3, zero points], it's been a long time since he made a shot out here. Zack [Novak, 4-for-10 from long range] has been up and down. We need positive takes, talk to them, put our arm around them. We've done all these things … you just keep doing it.
"They are shooting not to miss or thinking they're going to get fouled … thinking too much. It's a shame right now, because I thought we played one of our better defensive games of the year. They are 6-9, 7-1, 6-9. Right from the beginning we got DeShawn kicking them to the rim. I like the shot distribution and everything … the ball just won't go in."
Michigan trailed 26-18 at the half but ripped off 11 straight points to start the second half, showing signs of life after shooting only 20 percent in the first. The Wolverines couldn't sustain it, and now must head to Columbus to play Ohio State Saturday to try and stop the bleeding.
The way things have gone at home, Beilein noted, that might not be such a bad thing.
"We need to go play on the road," he said. "I don't know if we're stressing out a bit. I don't know what it is, but it's unfortunate. We got great crowds, but it's really become a mental block I'm trying to talk them through. I've loved 'em, I've challenged them … I've done everything I can do."
• Illinois had a rough season similar to Michigan's two years ago, head coach Bruce Weber said in voicing his understanding for U-M's plight.
"Two years ago, we weren't in synch. They really only lost a couple of guys, but leadership … we went through it and developed as a team," he said. "Leadership is something you can't see, but when you don't have it, you really miss it.
"I don't know if that's it … Sims is playing as well as anyone, Manny is still one of the best. They spread you out and make you play the three line. If they make the threes, they're pretty good.
"It's one of those seasons it's doesn't seem to go their way. Even today, you could see it going our way and it didn't go their way. Manny drives a couple times, looks like he has a layup, can't get it down … sometimes the ball bounces in, sometimes it doesn't."
• Beilein talked about experimenting with his bench, but freshman Matt Vogrich continues to struggle to find time. He played only two minutes and missed his only shot.
"He's had trouble being a multi-position player," said Beilein. "He's got to be able to do that. We started him at the two, then switched him to the three when Eso [Akunne] could not play. He's struggled like many freshmen do being a multi-position player. Now we have to bring him back."
• Sims made only three of 12 field goals and scored seven points, struggling with foul trouble.
"We tried to [go to him] several times. He's 6-7 1/2 against a 7-1 guy. It wasn't working for obvious reasons," said Beilein. "He wasn't going to post up and score over the guy inside. He had a couple wrinkles I think he could have got there, but did not have a great game."
Fifth-year senior Zack Gibson provided a spark with seven points in 20 minutes.
"Zack Gibson is playing very, very well. DeShawn wasn't having a great offensive day and he's got four fouls, so you know his defensive presence is not going to be the same," said Beilein. "I think Zack has been our bright spot right now in this funk."
Head coach John Beilein: "We've got to do something. When these kids … if you see our practices and how hard we work …
"The stuff we ran today I thought was great. We got great looks -- we got to the basket. We just can't make a basket, and sometimes we're tentative. We just came from two of our best wins since I've been here on the road, Minnesota and Iowa. Those were great, comeback wins. Now we come back home, and I'm as puzzled as all of you."