Three games, three wins and three relatively unsatisfying performances. Michigan handled its business during the first two weeks of the season but, as they prepare to board a flight to Maui on Friday, it’s clear that the Wolverines haven’t found their stride. Tonight, Michigan beat Western Illinois 59-55 in a dragging 55 possession affair.
There were some pretty dramatic statistical anomalies in this game but the deciding statistic was Western Illinois’ tendency to turn the ball over. The Leathernecks coughed it up 20 times, or on 35% of their possessions, and actually had as many made field goals as turnovers. 24 of Michigan’s 59 points were generated from turnovers although Michigan notched just two points in transition. Western Illinois was able to hang around in the game despite its turnover woes because of some very efficient shooting – 52% on twos, 44% on threes for an impressive 57 eFG%. The Leathernecks also rebounded the ball well on the offensive glass, corralling 39% of their missed shots for 10 second chance points. There’s little doubt that Ceola Clark transformed the Leatherneck offense as he scored 21 points on 6 of 12 (4-9 3pt) shooting and handed out four assists in his first game in almost a year.
It’s the last thing you expect to hear in a game where Michigan failed to score 60 points but this was Michigan’s most efficient offensive performance of the season. That says quite a bit about Michigan’s early offensive struggles as well as the slow tempo of this game. The Wolverines scored 1.06 points per trip, far from great but an improvement over 1.01 and .95 in their first two games of the season. Michigan shot the ball better – 55% on twos, 35% on threes for 54 eFG% – and got to the line more often than it has in any game this season. That performance still just netted 1.06 points per trip, an underwhelming number versus the worst defense in the Summit League a season ago.
A couple quick team wide Michigan thoughts. Western Illinois was trying to slow the game down but two fast break points on the game shows that Michigan will be more than content to slow games down this season. Free throw shooting is officially worrisome as Michigan made just 14 of 22 attempts (64%) rendering their ability to get to the line less valuable. We only saw one or two possessions of the 1-3-1 zone but I suspect we could see many as 10 possessions on Monday. I thought Michigan ran more effective out of bounds plays today than we’ve seen in recent seasons, Stu Douglass had an easy look and Morgan got a layup off a slower developing set play off an inbound. Those types of easy baskets can be valuable if Michigan continues to sputter offensively.
The question that everyone wants answered: “Is it time to Panic?” Frankly I’m not sure. The Michigan offense hasn’t looked good, failing to clear 1.10 points per trip in four games (including exhibition), and the defense has been far from faultless. Memphis played just one game and looked nearly perfect offensively against a better team (Belmont) than Michigan has faced to date. Concerns about Michigan’s slow start are real but it’s tough to jump to conclusions or reach judgment based on games against teams that simply weren’t that great. What happens on Monday, when the Wolverines face a top 10 Memphis team, will teach a lot about this team and very quickly. One thing is certain, if Michigan plays with the same sort of lackadaisical intensity and execution that we’ve seen thus far, it will be a long flight back to the mainland on Wednesday.
With respect to facing Memphis, I’m more worried about Michigan’s defense than its offense in that game. Monday’s game will be much more about controlling tempo and preventing the Tigers from getting easy looks of the sort that Western Illinois had all night. While playing in a close game might be a nice warm-up, a 55 possession game is definitely not be the most relevant tune up before facing a Memphis squad that averaged 69 possessions per game a season ago.
- Jordan Morgan: This was a breakout performance from Morgan. He deserved every one of the 29 minutes that he played and would have played more if it wasn’t for foul trouble. He’s more physical than Michigan’s other big men (5 rebs, 2 stls, 1 blk) but he’s also much more opportunistic offensively. He’s in the right spot to receive the ball and did a great job finishing today (5-5). He’s not all the way to where he was last season (3 turnovers and 1-4 FTs are ugly) but he’s shown positive improvement in the past week.
- Tim Hardaway Jr.: Hardaway showed off his improved two point scoring and distribution in this game. He was 5 of 5 inside the arc and also handed out four assists to just one turnover. He hasn’t found his three point stroke this season (1 of 4 today) but his versatile scoring inside the arc was impressive: a long jump shot as well as an array of mid-range buckets and drives. That sort of balanced two point scoring is impressive for a player that attempted over half of his field goals from three point range a year ago. He still hasn’t seemed to take a game over like we saw a year ago but he very quietly had 12 points on 5 of 6 shooting in the second half today.
- Trey Burke: Trey can shoot the ball and that will mask some of his freshman mistakes, especially early on this season. He was 3 of 8 (3-5 3pt) today for 14 points, five assists, four rebounds, three turnovers and a steal. The freshman mistakes were evident – leaving his feet to make awkward passes and fouling jump shooters – by his three turnovers and four fouls but Michigan needs Burke on the floor.
- Zack Novak: Novak had a very quiet night, scoring five points on 1 of 4 shooting but he did have a handful of typical Novak plays. He took a great charge in the first half and he has to be approaching double figures in charges drawn through three games. With the game tied 30-30 he also hit a big three pointer and then followed it up with a steal on the other end.
- Evan Smotrycz: Smotrycz had a painful performance with 3 points, two rebounds and a turnover on 1 of 8 shooting. He’s so quick to take shots before the first TV timeout but he also seems to let the outcome of those early attempts affect his game for the next 35 minutes. He also looked a step slow defensively on the perimeter which could be a concern on Monday when he’s faced up against some of Memphis’ perimeter athletes. Nothing went right for him tonight and that newfound toughness and aggressiveness from the first two games was absent today.
- Stu Douglass: This was a mixed bag for Douglass who still hasn’t really found his perimeter stroke. He scored five points on 2 of 6 (1-4 3pt) shooting, handed out three assists but turned the ball over twice. He had a couple nice passes but really forced the issue on a couple passes to the big men. He’s much more comfortable kicking the ball to a shooter after penetration rather than finding either big.
- Jon Horford: Horford played just six minutes, didn’t grab a rebound and scored two points on a pair of free throws. The starting job is Jordan Morgan’s but it will be interesting to see where Horford’s progression goes from here.
- Matt Vogrich: Matt hit his first three of the season and Michigan is going to need his shooting stroke in Hawaii.