If memory serves, the play took place sometime around the twelve-minute mark during the second half of Indiana's 81-73 win over Michigan Saturday night. It was a short, unassuming, dead-end kind of play, and it went something like this:
Indiana guard Jordan Hulls receives a chest pass in the corner. Michigan point guard and Player of the Year contender Trey Burke races out to guard him. Hulls takes a hard dribble toward the baseline and surges past his opponent. Burke, desperate and off balance, jabs for the ball.
Foul. Reach in. Indiana ball out of bounds.
If you know anything about Jordan Hulls and Trey Burke, you should know that perimeter-shooter-extraordinaire Jordan Hulls is an unlikely candidate to blow by future-NBA-draft-pick Trey Burke, especially with one dribble. And yet, there it was, in the fulcrum minutes of a seven-point game.
Any number of things could explain that particular sequence. Maybe Burke guessed wrong. Perhaps Jordan Hulls is a better athlete than I'm giving him credit for.
But I can only tell you what I saw. And what I saw was a tired Trey Burke ceding precious ground to an inferior player.
And why might I infer that Trey Burke was tired?
Probably because he played 38 minutes on Saturday night. And probably because he handled the ball on seemingly every Wolverines possession. And probably because he and his teammates had been in a full defensive scramble ever since finding themselves in a double-digit hole less than five minutes into the game.
That Hulls-Burke interaction was a small window into Michigan's most conspicuous flaw: a lack of depth.
And it makes me wonder: In the accelerated madness of March, does Michigan have enough bodies to survive?
As a matter of strategy, the Wolverines would like to beat their opponents using the same four players on the floor for about 85 percent of the game. Sometimes those four guys—Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas—run the opposition ragged. And sometimes the opposition lands the first blow.
As it so happened, the Indiana game was an instance of the latter.
In order to make up ground, Michigan did what most teams would do: They chased, they trapped and they ran. And ran. And ran.
Even when the Wolverines managed to knot the game at 40-40 in the second half, it seemed unlikely that John Beilein's bunch would have the legs to build and sustain a lead. And indeed they did not.
Indiana bore down, and a flagging Michigan team eventually failed to keep pace. Game over. Hoosiers win:
I should note that all this speculation about U-M's fatigue and general lack of depth is based in some pretty convincing statistical proof.
On the evening, for example, all four of the aforementioned Wolverines played 34 minutes or more. Indiana, by contrast, didn't have a single player exceed the 34-minute barrier. And for the year, Michigan ranks just 326th out of 347 NCAA Division I teams in percentage of bench minutes used (per kenpom.com).
Now, it would be misleading to suggest that the Wolverines can't win a championship relying so heavily on their starters. In fact, it's typical for a title-winning team to lean on its starting five. After all, you don't get to a championship game without great players logging major court time.
Take a look at the last six champions and where each fell in terms of bench minutes used:
Kentucky, 2012: 323rd
Connecticut, 2011: 206th
Duke, 2010: 315th
North Carolina, 2009: 247th
Kansas, 2008: 205th
Florida, 2007: 240th
But the problem for Michigan is not how often it plays its starting five, but the onus it places on its primary four—Burke, Hardaway Jr., Robinson III and Stauskas.
According to Ken Pomeroy, each of those men has played in more than 75 percent of Michigan's minutes this year. And the first three—Burke, Hardaway Jr., Robinson III—have played in more than 80 percent. That's an astounding share of minutes for just four players.
Now, let's take a look back at those six championship teams using the thresholds laid out above.
On each of those teams, how many players logged 75 percent of the available minutes? How about 80 percent of available minutes?
|Team||Players Over 75 Percent of Total Minutes||Players Over 80 Percent of Total Minutes|
That chart puts Michigan's problem in much more ominous terms.
The Wolverines are essentially trying to do what no other team has done in the six years since Ken Pomeroy began tracking this statistic: ride four players to a championship.
Obviously, six years is a small sample size. It doesn't prove anything. Michigan may have the right combination of talent and cardiovascular endurance to survive.
But make no mistake, this is a burden for the Wolverines.
And when the March schedule demands that they play not one, but two high-intensity games over the course of one weekend, we have to wonder: How will Burke, Hardaway Jr., Robinson III and Stauskas respond?
We know how good that quartet can be. What we don't know is how good they'll be when the games shift speed, the calender shrinks and the breaths, as they always do, grow a split-second shorter.