PUZZLED WOLVERINES OUT IN THE HALL AGAIN

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — The reason we distinguish between freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors is to know where they are in their studies. Example: a senior should not be taking beginner’s math if he is a math major. Nor should a grad student be taking beginner’s English.

Nor should Jalen Rose, Ray Jackson, Juwan Howard and Jimmy King be enrolled in “Intro To Indiana Basketball” in this, their junior season. Uh-uh. By now, they should know the material.

But here they were Sunday, back in the same old class in the same old raucous Assembly Hall, missing the same questions, making the same mistakes, getting the same grade.

D.

For defeated.

Haven’t we seen this game before?

“Man, ever since my freshman year, it’s been the same story,” lamented Jackson, after the Wolverines blew a huge first-half lead and lost to Indiana, 82-72, the third straight year the Fabulous Class has been knocked off down here. “We come out, play well, get an early lead, and can’t hold onto it. I’m sick of it.”

Hey, Ray, join the club. Sunday was no fun for Michigan fans, either. The saddest part was that it seemed so predictable. Even after the Wolverines took a commanding lead in the first half, you could almost feel the collapse coming. So, too, could the Indiana fans, who roared louder than most Crisler crowds on a good night — and this, when their Hoosiers cut the deficit to 11!

It rubbed off on Indiana. It smeared all over Michigan. Weird as it sounds, it almost appears as if, in their hearts, these Wolverines don’t believe they are supposed to beat the Hoosiers in Assembly Hall — anymore than they believe they are supposed to beat Duke — and no matter how much circumstances tilt their way early, by the end, they tilt it back.

Which, as you know, is what happened Sunday. With less than six minutes left in the first half, the stealing, jamming, slamming Wolverines led by 15 points, 34-19. Here is what they did the rest of the half:

Nothing.

No points. No baskets. Nothing but three missed one-and-one chances — two by Rose, who should know better. This, naturally, revved up the crowd. And the Hoosiers charged back, They got three lay-ups and a tip-in. At halftime, the Michigan lead was three.

In truth, the game was over.

“We should have been up 10 at that point,” coach Steve Fisher sighed afterward.

True. But then, a boxscore tells you that. What it doesn’t answer is
“Why?” Why does this happen, year after year? Better question: Why does this happen this year? Michigan currently starts four juniors who have seen more in their college careers than many players see in a lifetime. They have been on the biggest stages. Withstood the greatest pressures. Why then, do they refuse to learn, eliminate the old mistakes against the old opponents, and improve? Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen when you get older?

Don’t they know to work the ball inside against Indiana? Don’t they know not to rush shots? Don’t they know to watch out for the endless Hoosier screens? Hasn’t Fisher been saying this for years?

Instead, here was Rose making more bad shot selections than when he was a freshman, and King, turning the ball over, and Jackson missing short jumpers and Howard failing to box out time after time. And free throws! Lord, enough already with these free throws! Freshmen? OK. Sophomores? Maybe. Junior year? No excuse. Jalen missed half of his, and Juwan missed both of his, and come on. There’s a reason they call it a free throw. It’s not supposed to cost you the game.

It’s supposed to help you win it. Indiana shot 45 free throws. Imbalanced? You bet. But isn’t it always imbalanced down here? The 45 Hoosier attempts were not the difference.

The 36 they made were the difference.

“I’ve been working on my free throws,” said Alan Henderson, the Indiana forward who, I gather, had some problems at the line recently, but made 13 of 16 on Sunday. “I worked with coach (Ron) Felling on a new technique. It’s helped me out. I’m shooting better.”

Why don’t we hear such sentences from the Wolverines?

Now, OK. Sunday was not strictly the fault of the Fab Four. Young Bobby Crawford must have thought he was pressing the joy stick on a video game, the way he kept firing these long bombs that didn’t even come close. And Leon Derricks still plays as if someone is renting his body.

But the Fab Juniors should know better than to make old mental mistakes. They rushed through the second half, took quick shots, failed to establish an offense, much less get into one. And they were outrebounded again — often because they didn’t box out. All this, by the way, with Howard, King, Jackson and Rose playing an average of 35 minutes apiece.

Indiana, meanwhile, was using a freshman, Sherron Williams, to defense Rose, and a sophomore, Brian Evans, at starting forward, and another freshman, Steve Hart, as a spark plug off the bench. You would figure a savvy group like Michigan would have an experience edge, right?

Instead, the Hoosiers played with more smarts. And even though Rose said
“they were nervous when we took that big lead,” they sure didn’t look nervous at the end, when the buzzer sounded.

Listen. This would all be forgivable if it were just Indiana. A lot of teams lose to the Hoosiers — who haven’t tasted defeat in Assembly Hall in 37 games.

But this year anyhow, it isn’t just the Hoosiers. It Duke. And it’s Arizona. The Wolverines have played four top-notch teams and have been soundly beaten by three. Only the win over Georgia Teach stands out, and it was the first game of the year.

And this is a concern. In the first two years of the Fab Era, the mark of this team was that it stepped up against big- time opponents.

Last year, for example, U-M went to Hawaii and beat North Carolina, Kansas and Nebraska in three straight nights. That was a huge accomplishment. It carried the Wolverines through the losing nights against Indiana and Iowa because they were able to tell themselves, “Never mind. We know we’re capable of beating anybody. Remember Hawaii?”

This year, so far, what is there to remember? Frantic comebacks against middle-level teams like Iowa? Or collapses to the Blue Devils?

Or Sunday? I don’t think so. At the end of the game, Jalen thought he was fouled and let the referee know it. His anger was burning and his mouth was running and next thing you know, technical foul. His fifth personal. He went to the bench, plopped down, and glared until the buzzer sounded and the Hoosier leaped and hugged each other.

The only mystery was which bothered him more: the defeat, or the feeling that he was sitting through the same class for the third straight year?

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