Last year’s Michigan team went two months before losing a game. This year’s group made it to its third game. The Wolverines didn’t play poorly at Iowa State but they didn’t play well enough to win on the road, falling to the Cyclones 77-70.
The 2013-14 Wolverines are still forging their identity. Replacing the National Player of the Year isn’t easy and doing it with a freshman point guard is even more difficult. Michigan doesn’t know who its go-to player is or who it should be and its All-American center practiced just once before playing his first game Sunday night. Playing in front of 14,384 fans, that uncertainty caught up to Michigan.
The Wolverines led by as many as nine points in the first half and controlled the game until the final seven minutes. Sophomore guard Nik Stauksas was comfortable leading the offense, scoring 20 points and handing out six assists. Mitch McGary played 22 minutes and made an impact, but he was out-dueled by Iowa State’s Melvin Ejim. Ejim, who returned two weeks early from a hyper-extended knee, tallied a game-high 22 points and nine rebounds.
The Cyclones made more plays down the stretch and Michigan unraveled just a bit in the face of pressure. Iowa State outscored the Wolverines 24-10 with a run that spanned the final 8:48 and started immediately after an emphatic dunk from Nik Stauskas appeared to give Michigan a comfortable six point lead.
Michigan’s offense was held below a point per possession against a non-conference foe for the first time since December 2011 (at 74 possessions this was also the fastest game that Michigan has played since 2011). The Wolverines lost this game because of their offensive execution. Over the last two seasons, Michigan is 45-3 when holding opponents below 1.05 points per trip. This is a program that relies on having an offense that can win consistently with that level of defensive performance.
The Wolverines undoing on the offensive end was the 3-point shot. With 42% of Michigan’s field goal attempts originating from long range, the Wolverines connected on just 8-of-29 attempts (28%). Some were forced late in the game, but Michigan missed a lot of open looks from players that have been fairly consistent. If this team shoots less than 30% on those kind of open looks all season they are going to have some major issues. U-M did shoot 52.5% on 2-point attempts but didn’t get to the line often (13% FTA/FGA) or make a major impact on the offensive glass (29% offensive rebounding rate). The Wolverines scored 14 second chance points on 12 offensive boards but most of that production was in the first half.
The Wolverine defense wasn’t necessarily bad, surrendering 1.04 points per possession, but it deteriorated down the stretch. Michigan held Iowa State to 3 points on its first eight possessions of the second half and then surrendered 39 points on the final 30 possessions of the game – 1.3 points per trip over the final 17 minutes compared to .86 points trip trip in the first 23 minutes.
The Wolverines controlled the defensive glass, Iowa State rebounded just 21% of its misses for eight second chance points, but struggled to keep the Cyclones out of the lane and protect the rim (56% 2-point shooting, 0 blocks). Michigan’s defense was most effective when it could turn Iowa State over. McGary and Robinson combined for eight steals which led to 11 points off turnovers but the Cyclones only gave the ball away on 16% of their possessions. The big difference statistically was at the free throw line, where Iowa State outscored the Wolverines 13-4 and had 10 more attempts. Iowa State also executed down the stretch. Naz Long and DeAndre Kane both hit some big threes late and Georges Niang was able to switch onto Caris Levert twice down the stretch and post him up for easy points.
Michigan has a lot to fix but at this point that’s encouraging. There was a point in the middle of last December where it was clear that Michigan was playing about as well as it could. Mitch McGary did emerge in the tournament but we always knew about what that team was. This year’s group is going to improve significantly as the season goes on. The Wolverines will have to grow up as they are off to Puerto Rico next week. The environment in Puerto Rico will be friendlier (and warmer) but the importance of getting a few quality wins is magnified with a trip to Duke shortly after.
- Nik Stauskas: Stauskas is the guy that Michigan can rely on offensively right now. 20 points on 8-of-18 (4-10 3pt) shooting with six assists, four rebounds and one turnover is a very solid game. He missed some open threes but his mid-range and driving game is in full effect: strong drives to the rim, mid-range jumpers, ball screen passes and the monster dunk in the second half. Stauskas was Michigan’s best player and right now he’s the guy who I want to have the ball in his hands. He made mistakes (missing the front end of a 1-and-1 stands out) but he played a great game overall.
- Mitch McGary: McGary played and made a lot of McGary plays. He also looked healthy for the most part. He changes the game with his disruption defensively (4 steals) and outlet passing ability. He made plays on the offensive glass and in transition but his half-court offense was a bit rusty. He missed all of the mid-range jumpers that he took and also tried an over the shoulder pass to the far corner that went flying out of bounds. The half-court improvement is what fans are most eager to see but with exactly one full practice under his belt, he gets a pass in his first game.
- Derrick Walton: Walton certainly had some bad moments but he didn’t necessarily look like a deer in headlights during his first road game either. He finished with 13 points, two assists, and three turnovers in 21 minutes. He was 5-of-5 inside the arc and just 1-of-5 outside the arc and his only made three was a bank from the top of the key. He made some mistakes in pressure situations (a big reason that Albrecht was on the floor late) but his talent is obvious. The first thing on his improvement list will be learning that he doesn’t have to shoot the ball every time he’s slightly open from three-point range — especially off the dribble.
- Caris LeVert: LeVert played major minutes (37) but struggled. He finished with 5 points on 2-of-9 (1-5 3pt) shooting with six rebounds, two assists and a turnover. LeVert played more than 16 minutes just twice last year (EMU and MSU) and this was obviously a big step up in competition from Michigan’s early season cupcakes. His jumper still looks better and I’ m confident the 3-point shooting will come around but he got caught in some tricky spots around the rim when he drove the lane. Defensively he spent a lot of time guarding DeAndre Kane (who finished with 13 pts (5-of-10 fg), 6 ast, 5 turnovers) but he really struggled when Kane and, late in the game on a switch, Niang took him to the post.
- Glenn Robinson III: Robinson’s first half was dreadful (2pts, 1-6 fg, 2TO, 1 stl), but his second half was better (10pt, 3-8 fg, 3 stls). He’s clearly a guy that wants to do more but isn’t quite comfortable doing more. I thought he played pretty good defense, especially early on against Ejim and Niang, and he did grab 7 rebounds (2 offensive). Michigan coaches want Robinson to push the ball off of defensive rebounds but he was too loose with it in transition today. His jumper wasn’t working tonight and hasn’t really been since the first exhibition game when he racked up 33 points. He needs a big performance in Puerto Rico, mostly just to give him some confidence so he can stop feeling that he needs to force things. The snap reaction is that Robinson needs to stop pressing entirely and just sit in the corner but the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Michigan needs him to do more and it will take some time before he figures out that sweet spot.
- Spike Albrecht: Albrecht is a luxury because he can step in and isn’t afraid to fire away a three pointer or throw a pass on the ball screen. Yes, he’s a defensive liability but he played well on Sunday. He finished with 7 points and three assists in 18 minutes, knocking down a triple, throwing a great ball screen assist to Jon Horford and finishing a nifty layup at the rim to give Michigan a 5-point lead in the second half.
- Jon Horford: Horford played 14 minutes, scored 4 points and grabbed 5 rebounds (2 offensive). He missed one bunny but it was a tough catch and played pretty solid while he was on the floor.
- Zak Irvin: Irvin struggled in his first road game. He finished 0-of-2 with a turnover, three rebounds and three fouls in 13 minutes. There are little things to shore up: a transition pass into the fifth row of the stands or having a defensive rebounds just ripped out of his hands. I don’t love him playing the four, but there’s really no other spot to get him on the floor with LeVert and Stauskas playing so many minutes.
- Jordan Morgan: Morgan played just four minutes and had two fouls and turnover (a dropped pass in the high post). He seemed like a potential answer for Ejim but never really did much in his limited playing time. With McGary and Horford healthy, where do his minutes come from? Zak Irvin played all of the backup minutes at the four spot today.