Phil Martelli exposes Michigan basketball’s maturity problem


If Michigan’s basketball season disintegrates in the coming days by cratering at Ohio State on Sunday and crashing out of next week’s Big Ten tournament with another callow display, then the loss of Thursday against No. 25 Iowa will be remembered as the night the Wolverines foundation cracked. .

It has little to do with the shortcomings on the field that Michigan presented in an 82-71 loss to the Hawkeyes – be it the poor individual defense of the Keegan brothers (23 points) and Kris Murray (19 points), or the inability to challenge the perimeter. shooting (Iowa shot 11 for 19 from 3-point range), or stumbling offensively with 13 points in the first 12 minutes of a game it never led.

No, that’s reading the tea leaves of a series of postgame interviews like no other during Michigan’s wavering season.

“Some days we’ll be aggressive and precise,” said power forward Brandon Johns Jr. “Other days we come in nonchalantly and play just to finish the game. We just have to be on that wave constant to simply be ready to play, to be ready to give all the energy and all the effort possible.

The admission that the players did little more than go through the motions in some games was among a handful of scathing remarks from Johns, Caleb Houstan and associate head coach Phil Martelli as UM (16- 13, 10-9 Big Ten) approaching its break indicate. For months, the team firmly believed that the pieces would eventually fall into place and that a season full of expectations could still end with something to show for. But a tame performance against Iowa sparked a fourth loss in seven games and prompted the Wolverines to publicly acknowledge serious flaws.

Thursday’s soul-searching began with Johns and Houstan speaking to reporters before Martelli entered the room. Johns started by hitting all the right notes on players who have faith, trust each other, and never give up on the season, even when the NCAA Tournament odds flicker. Then he acknowledged the team’s problem with “the mental piece” to find consistency – UM has alternated wins and losses in eight straight games – and hinted that some roster members aren’t doing everything they do. it takes to win.

Houstan thought the defensive breakdowns that allowed Iowa to shoot 60 percent from the field and 70 percent from 3-pointers in the first half were the result of poor communication and poor effort.

“I don’t think we came to play,” Houstan said.

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And then Martelli spoke. He opened his post-match press conference by taking the blame for failing Senior Night and blaming the six winners for the loss. He lamented Michigan’s sluggish ball defense that was reminiscent of previous weak spots this season. He asked players and coaches to look in the mirror between now and the Buckeyes whistleblower to ask themselves what more they could do.

All the expected subjects have been affected.

But Martelli veered in a new direction towards the end of an 11-minute interview when asked to explain the undulating nature of this year’s team. Martelli responded by berating players for what he described as a lack of investment – even with declining games.

“It’s well established that Eli (Brooks) is the leader,” Martelli said. “But at this point in the year, you need a few followers to get you going, right? You can follow for a long time, but when someone turns around and says, ‘I need about you” — and it can lead on the bus to Ohio State, it can lead (saying): “Hey, did you watch your movie on your iPad?’

“We always have a very good group of people in this room. I’m not sure we have a stirrer in the room. If Sunday is going to be me and Howard (Eisley) and Saddi (Washington), then that’s what we’ll do. But we have to have an emotional commitment to the game. And calling it what it is, we didn’t have an emotional commitment to start the game.

“I’m someone who sees each day as a separate entity. And in this program, you’re asked to bring everything you have to whatever we ask you to do. And we weren’t 1% better than we were on Tuesday. But now we’re getting to the point of the year (where) we can’t continue this pattern or we’ll be going home very early in March. And none of us want that.

Michigan associate head coach Phil Martelli talks to assistant coach Saddi Washington during a timeout during the second half against Iowa at the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor on Thursday, March 3 2022.

Throughout the season, the players identified what they believed to be potential turning points following strong performances that teased the group’s potential. There was a decisive road victory over Indiana, a win from behind at Penn State, a 24-point strike from Purdue, a comprehensive road victory at Iowa, a cathartic blowout from rival Michigan State earlier. this week.

Time and again, players have been wrong; their inconsistency always returned. The Wolverines have won consecutive games since January 26 and their longest winning streak of the season is three. They likely need to win back-to-back games against Ohio State and their first-round opponent Thursday in the Big Ten Tournament to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

So Martelli was asked: what would it say about this group of players if the corner was never turned, if uneven play continued in Columbus and Indianapolis to stifle a season that had started with so much hype? media?

“It means they’re a bunch of nice young guys,” Martelli said. “It’s good to be emphatic and young to be emphatic. And I’m not talking about the (numerical) age. There is an emotional age that we need to raise quickly on all levels.

Who and what Martelli was referring to is unclear; he provided no further details. But the statement was harsher than anything head coach Juwan Howard would say of his team in public, though the words were calmly spoken by the affable Martelli.

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Perhaps he grew frustrated with Hunter Dickinson’s taunting of his opponents, which Martelli asked him to stop in the second half against Michigan State. Maybe he’s still irritated by Moussa Diabate and Terrance Williams II throwing punches against Wisconsin. Maybe he saw Frankie Collins and Adrien Nunez throwing shots down the half court in warm-ups on Tuesday while their teammates worked at the other end of the court.

Michigan center Hunter Dickinson is defended by Iowa forward Kris Murray, left, and forward Keegan Murray during the first half at Crisler Center on Thursday, March 3, 2022.

Or maybe it’s none of that. Perhaps the emotional immaturity Martelli wants to eradicate is rooted in events or conversations that happened behind closed doors and away from reporters or fans.

Either way, the Wolverines have gone public with deep-rooted issues at the worst time of the year.

Contact Michael Cohen at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.


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