Nate Wolters didn’t wait long to show off a sampling of his offensive skillset in front of a pro-Michigan crowd at the Palace of Auburn Hills on Thursday evening. The 6-foot-4 senior crossed over Trey Burke and buried a long jumper over the likely National Player of the Year, giving South Dakota State an early 8-7 lead.
The Burke-Wolters matchup had been hyped and analyzed for much of the last week and for just a moment it looked as if the matchup was going to materialize. But from that point on the oft-questioned Wolverine defense was able to slow down the star guard. Wolters would make just one of his final 11 field goal attempts over the next 35 minutes and Michigan would waltz to a 15-point NCAA tournament opening victory.
Michigan’s star guard wasn’t much better but he had more help. Trey Burke finished with just six points on 2-of-12 shooting (but did have seven assists) and left the game bruised and battered after a nasty fall in the second half but his teammates were up to the challenge. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III played their best offensive games in over a month, scoring 21 points apiece, while Mitch McGary seized the moment in a surprise start to finish with 13 points and nine rebounds.
Michigan had a dismal six minute scoreless stretch early in the first half that featured a lot of passing around the perimeter and not much else. But other than that the Wolverines scored the ball effectively against a weak Jackrabbit defense. The Wolverines scored 1.18 points per trip for the game and a superb 1.32 points per possession in the final 20 minutes. There was nothing secretive about Michigan’s strong performance offensively; the Wolverines simply hit a lot of open shots. Michigan made 54% of its twos and 45% of its threes an impressive 59% effective field goal percentage – its best shooting performance since its January 17th win at Minnesota.
Michigan only rebounded eight of its 27 missed shots for 11 second chance points and didn’t turn the ball over often or get to the free throw line much. However, the Wolverines were able to push the ball. The game as a whole wasn’t fast, at just 60 possessions, but the Wolverines manufactured some easy baskets. Despite botching some early lobs and transition opportunities in the first half, Michigan finished with eight fast break points and countless others in the secondary break.
The Wolverines were able to push the tempo because their defense was finally able to get some stops. For only the third time in the last 10 games, Michigan held its opposition below a point per possession. The Jackrabbits managed just .93 points per trip for the game and were never able to get Nate Wolters heated up. Michigan did a good job of defending the three and cleaning up the defensive glass but still had its fair share of defensive breakdowns. The Jackrabbits shot 58% on 2-point attempts for the game, a sign that there are still some issues with Michigan’s interior rotations.
Next up is a Saturday date with ‘Havoc’. VCU smacked a depleted Akron squad by 46 points on Thursday evening to setup a polarizing round of 32 match up. The Rams force more turnovers than any team in the country while Michigan turns the ball over less that any team in Division I. Saturday’s turnover battle is likely to determine who moves on to the Sweet 16. Tip off is scheduled for 12:15 p.m. (CBS) on Saturday afternoon at the Palace.
- Glenn Robinson III: Robinson’s offensive explosion to open the second half – he scored Michigan’s first 11 and 13 of its first 15 of the second period – set the tone in the second half and allowed the Wolverines to pull away. Robinson’s three triples in the first four minutes of the second matched his total made threes over his last 14 games. Robinson wasn’t just stroking jump shots. He grabbed six rebounds (two offensive) and also did an impressive job defensively when switched onto Nate Wolters. I wrote in the preview that Robinson had to exploit Jordan Dykstra’s defensive woes and he was certainly the key to the Wolverine win.
- Tim Hardaway Jr.: Hardaway carried the Michigan offense when it couldn’t get anything started in the first half. His four first half made threes all came at critical junctures and he finished an impressive 8-of-13 (5-7 3pt) from the field. Hardaway’s hot and cold nature has been well established but if he can shoot the ball like this Michigan is capable of making a serious tournament run. Hardaway spent significant time switched onto Wolters and did his job.
- Mitch McGary: McGary might not always know what he’s trying to do but you can bank on him giving it maximum effort. His energy is contagious and it was on full display from the opening tip. He was active offensively early, runs the floor extremely well and still has an uncanny ability – for a 6-foot-10, 250 pound player – to come up with steals. McGary left his finger prints all over the game and yes, he’ll make the occasional turnover or force up a couple of shots, but his ceiling is so much higher than any other option Michigan can put on the floor at the five.
- Trey Burke: Burke didn’t pick an ideal time to play his worst game of the season but it might have been a blessing in disguise for the Wolverines. Burke couldn’t buy a basket, finishing 2-of-12 (0-5 3pt) from the field, but did end up with seven assists to two turnovers by the final horn. Burke obviously is capable of better and missed a lot of shots that he’s knocked down all season. His teammates shouldered the load today but the Wolverines will need him to be at his best on Saturday against VCU’s ‘Havoc’ full court press.
- Nik Stauskas: Stauskas finished 3-of-9 (1-4 3pt) from the floor for eight points. His bucket (and free throw) immediately after Trey Burke went down was critical. Michigan was up just six points at that point and most everyone in the building assumed it might be without its best player for the remainder of the game. Stauskas’s basket sparked an 8-0 Michigan run, without Burke, that helped put the game out of reach.
- Jon Horford: Horford had a basket, a nice hook in the lane, and four rebounds in 14 minutes. He was strong with the ball and did a solid job on the glass but he got lost three or four times and allowed Fiegen to pop open for a mid-range 17-footer.
- Jordan Morgan: Morgan not only didn’t start, he played just one minute in the game. He looked alright on the defense but his playing time speaks volumes. McGary and Horford both played great and deserved their minutes but Morgan clearly isn’t right, something Beilein hypothesized is due to health.
- Spike Albrecht: Albrecht stepped onto the floor when Trey Burke went down with his nasty fall and kept things moving smoothly as the Wolverines made a run.
- Caris LeVert: It seems like LeVert has looked rattled offensively since his big game against Michigan State. He’s missing jumpers and seems to have the slightest bit of indecision before shooting or driving; passing or going to the rim.