ANN ARBOR, Mich. – John Beilein's young Michigan team was expected to struggle on offense.
Now, the Wolverines are enduring some growing pains at the other end of the court, too.
"There's a maturation that you go through to understanding how to play defense," Beilein said. "We are not there yet. We get better every day, but so does the competition."
Beilein is in his fourth season as Michigan's coach, but the Wolverines are rebuilding with three freshmen and a sophomore in the starting lineup. They've beaten Clemson and lost close games against Syracuse, Kansas and Ohio State, but Michigan is on a six-game losing streak heading into Thursday night's matchup at No. 25 Michigan State.
Beilein runs a free-flowing offense with lots of ball movement. Young players can expect an adjustment period, and in Big Ten play, Michigan is scoring a league-worst 61.7 points per game.
But that stat isn't as bad as it looks — the Wolverines seldom try to push the ball up the court. What should concern Beilein more is the fact that even at a slower pace, conference opponents are averaging 72.3 points against his team.
Whether the problem is size, athleticism or a simple lack of focus by inexperienced players, the Wolverines aren't defending well enough.
"Defensively, there's so much more that you have to see," Beilein said. "There's a lot of multitasking that's going on."
At its best, Michigan has been able to contain teams playing either man-to-man defense or zone. Kansas appeared flustered by the Wolverines' 1-3-1 zone while blowing a 13-point second-half lead against them on Jan. 9. The Jayhawks did manage to win in overtime.
Three nights later, Michigan held Ohio State's Jared Sullinger to four field goals in a four-point loss to the unbeaten Buckeyes.
Since then, however, the Wolverines (11-9, 1-6 Big Ten) have regressed. Indiana shot 67 percent from the field in an 80-61 win over Michigan, and Northwestern made eight 3-pointers in the first half against the Wolverines.
Michigan returned home to take on Minnesota on Saturday night and lost 69-64. The Wolverines would likely have pulled off the upset, but they allowed the Golden Gophers to shoot 63 percent and grab 11 offensive rebounds.
Minnesota's Chip Armelin, who averages 3.7 points per game, scored twice in a row on simple drives from the right wing, part of a 12-3 run that proved decisive.
"We didn't make winning plays or smart plays," Michigan guard Stu Douglass said. "We made a lot of stupid errors."
Michigan had to deal with foul trouble to 6-foot-8 Jordan Morgan and 6-foot-9 Evan Smotrycz, which hurt on both ends of the floor. The undersized Wolverines attempted 35 shots from 3-point range, and although they made 12, they couldn't keep up with a Minnesota team with inside threats.
Michigan will now try to snap its losing streak against Michigan State, which has had its own struggles after starting the season ranked No. 2 in the nation.
"It definitely would turn us around if we can go in there and get a win," Michigan guard Zack Novak said. "It's Michigan-Michigan State, but we need to get a lot of stuff corrected for that."
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo isn't about to take anyone lightly, no matter how many games in a row the Wolverines have lost.
"I think they're better than their record," Izzo said. "In a lot of ways, they're a better team than they were last year. They run their offense a lot better with more continuity."
Maybe so, but when the other team has the ball, the Wolverines still have a lot of room for improvement.
"Probably the biggest thing is the age of our young men," Beilein said. "They're young. Every game, there's a new scouting report. Every day, there's a new thing you have to do."