It took Michigan a while to realize that the regular season had started but eventually the Wolverines regained their form and topped UMass Lowell, 69-42.
Last year’s Michigan team set unfair an unfair precedent for non-conference performance. That group lost just one game to a non-conference foe, the National Championship against Louisville, and scored the ball at a proficient rate every time they touched the floor. They certainly didn’t have 23 point halves against America East foes. On a night when last year’s accomplishments were celebrated during pregame festivities, a brick filled first half against a team playing its first Division I game was the last thing on anyone’s mind.
But a spirited defensive performance in the second half fueled the sort of performance that everyone expected and eventually talent won out. Caris LeVert and Zak Irvin led a Wolverine effort featuring eight different scorers after just three Michigan players found the score sheet in the opening half.
Michigan’s offense was as awful in the first half (.82 points per possession) as it was great in the second half (1.42 points per possession). The first half offensive performance was due predominantly to dreadful shooting: the Wolverines posted a 28% effective field goal percentage (36% on twos). UMass Lowell prevented transition opportunities well and Michigan sputtered in the halfcourt. The Wolverines consistently crashed the offensive glass and got to the free throw line in both halves and that was the difference. Whether Beilein suddenly has an offensive group capable of doing both of those things consistently, or they are just a product of a massive talent gap remains to be seen.
Assists tell the story of Michigan’s offensive production. The Wolverines had just 2 assists on 5 makes in the first half compared to 11 assists on 14 makes and two turnovers in the second half. The second half numbers are something of the norm for U-M teams which made the first half performance particularly unsettling. Michigan’s offense has relied on a lot more dribble-drive action and the spacing and movement was significantly better in the second half.
The new NCAA-mandated fouling points of emphasis were on full display. Michigan attempted 32 free throws to just 53 field goals for a 60% free throw rate. The Wolverines were whistled for just 11 fouls while UMass Lowell committed 24 fouls. Michigan earned the freebies as Robinson (10 FTA), Stauskas (8 FTA) and LeVert (5 FTA) were all aggressive attacking the basket. We haven’t seen this sort of free throw production on a consistent basis from a Beilein-coached team and it’s developing into a trend against subpar competition. On the flip side, the adjusted block-charge interpretation is going to be an issue for Michigan’s defense. The Wolverines didn’t take a charge in the game and were whistled for a handful of blocks, several which probably would have gone the other way in recent seasons.
Other than a few blocking fouls, the Wolverine defense was dominant. UMass Lowell managed just 42 points in 62 offensive possessions and a handful of them were easy buckets off live ball turnovers. Michigan forced turnovers once every four possessions and kept the River Hawks off the charity stripe and the offensive glass. There will be a learning curve but this U-M team has the ability to be one of John Beilein’s best yet defensively, especially with Mitch McGary added back into the fold. Caris LeVert, Derrick Walton and Glenn Robinson III all had above average defensive games and UMass Lowell’s best guard, Akeem Williams, had as many made field goals (6) as turnovers.
- This is a team still looking for its identity and that’s not going to come overnight. The picture of a Michigan huddle above was eye opening because from the freshmen to the leader, everyone is in a new role. Robinson could be Michigan’s leader, McGary could be that guy, but right now there’s not a strong presence. Michigan’s best players on this team were either in 3rd and 4th options or in high school last year and they are still figuring out what it takes to be that No. 1 or No. 2 guy.
- The ‘two big’ lineup was missing in action. Morgan was replaced in the starting lineup and we never saw two bigs on the floor. UMass Lowell played a very small lineup but the fact that John Beilein reverted to the Robinson at the four look this quickly shows that he might not be that tied to it.
- Michigan’s big men don’t have to be Mitch McGary, they just have to catch the ball, make layups and rebound. That was a massive challenge in the first half as Horford, Morgan and Bielfeldt all botched bunnies around the rim. The big men were better in the second half but Horford earned the majority of the minutes.
- We were spoiled by Trey Burke last year but it’s clear that everyone isn’t quite on the same page just yet offensively. There have been three or four passes in each game that are just off by a half foot and turn an easy basket into a miss. These are most obvious on kickouts to the wing and pick-and-roll passes.
- Michigan had two really good ball screen baskets in the second half, LeVert to Morgan and Stauskas to Horford, but the fact that those stand out show just how different this year’s offense has been than last season. Walton hasn’t made much happen off of ball screens to this point and that will be another statistic to track.
- Glenn Robinson III: Robinson tallied 15 points (4-8 fg, 0-3 3pt), 7 rebounds, four assists, three steals and a turnover in 36 minutes. He played mostly the four spot, was noticeably more aggressive on the glass and was Michigan’s most consistent performer. He looks very comfortable with his mid-range jumper (Michigan looks for that shot often on OOB plays) and he got to the line often. He also had a couple of post catches for good measure. Robinson is never going to be a guard, he’s not going to run 10 ball screens per game and initiate the offense. But his game is more versatile and you can see his comfort level increasing steadily.
- Caris LeVert: LeVert got the start and led Michigan in scoring with 17 points on 6-of-11 shooting with an assist and two steals. LeVert missed a few shots early and seemed a bit rattled but he was perfect from the field in the second half. He played 35 minutes tonight and I can’t see how John Beilein takes him out of the starting lineup. He had a great ball screen pass, drove the lane consistently and had a ridiculous and-1 finish on a baseline cut.
- Zak Irvin: Irvin still looks like a guy adjusting to the offense. He’s not always in the right spots offensively and still looks a bit tentative. But man, he’s a talented scoring option off the bench. Irvin scored 10 points in nine minutes in the second half including a pair of threes. He plays under control with the ball in his hands, has a smooth jumper and a capable mid-range game. Expect his role to grow rapidly over the next month.
- Derrick Walton: Walton’s stat line was quiet: 6 points (1-4 fg), 4 assists, 4 rebounds and 3 steals in 27 minutes. In the half court, he’s still trying to figure out when and how to attack. He’s better in transition (where he had a nice euro-step for and and-one) and has the knack for getting fouled while attempting threes. But where he shines is on defense with his quickness, hands and nose for the ball are all impressive. Right now it’s his defense that keeps him on the floor but his offense will improve.
- Nik Stauskas: Stauskas only played 25 minutes (4th most among U-M players) and was just 1-of-5 from the field. His ability to get to the free throw line was impressive but his play was a bit loose on Friday. He made an early three but never found his stroke after that. Beyond a nice ball screen pass, his second half was below average. He had one shift that included two blocking fouls, a giveaway at the top of the key for an easy bucket and then a poor 18-foot jumper floating toward the baseline. He appears to be a bit of a downgrade defensively compared to LeVert, Irvin and Robinson on the wing.
- Spike Albrecht: Albrecht gave Michigan a lot in his 12 minutes off the bench. He knocked down an open three, took the ball to the rim and threw a nice pass to LeVert for a layup. His vision and three-point shooting ability make him a perfect back up option but defense is always going to be a concern.
- Jon Horford: Horford is Michigan’s starting center. He started every exhibition and played 22 minutes tonight, scoring five points and grabbing 12 rebounds (five offensive). His rebounding has been great, but it will need to be tested against stronger competition. He obviously has confidence with his jumper but it’s still a work in progress. His two makes were a 12-foot face up jumper and a ball screen dunk, both nice but I don’t think Michigan needs Horford taking eight shots. His hands need to get stronger around the basket, but right now he’s the most consistent option Michigan has.
- Jordan Morgan: Morgan had a bucket and three rebounds in 12 minutes but he also missed a layup and mucked up an opportunity around the rim.
- Max Bielfeldt: Bielfeldt got a chance in the first half when Michigan’s other bigs were struggling, but wasn’t able to change the flow of the game.