Opening the season with a ring ceremony is more than a celebration, it’s a reminder of the end goal.
Ask any of Michigan’s freshmen and they’ll say that watching their older teammates receive their rings is the ultimate motivation to get one of their own. Ask one of those returning players and they’ll tell you how badly they want another one.
The Wolverines have kicked off the last three seasons with a banner celebration and winning a ring is becoming an expectation rather than a dream. John Beilein has preached the importance of building a winning culture since he arrived in Ann Arbor and his foundation is firmly in place.
While the culture is a reality, Saturday’s season opener against Hillsdale was a reminder that this is a new, different team.
The Wolverines handled their Division II opponent with relative ease, but showed some growing pains along the way. Don’t pencil Michigan into the Elite Eight just yet, this is a team that’s still trying to figure itself out. Players need to find their roles, defensive rotations need to be drilled and it’s painfully obvious that roughly half of the roster is learning on the job.
The Michigan team on the floor Saturday afternoon didn’t look ready to compete for a championship yet, but it looked like a group that believes it will by season’s end.
Division II caveats aside, Michigan’s offense showed no signs of concern. The Wolverines checked off every box on the offensive check list: hot three point shooting, very few turnovers and a high free throw rate. The result was a simmering 1.35 point per possession performance that has started to become the norm. Michigan isn’t going to shoot over 50% from three-point range in every game, but it looks like there’s enough firepower that this offense has the potential to be great once again.
The Wolverines rode their ‘big three’ of Caris LeVert, Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin and they were remarkably efficient. LeVert, Irvin and Walton were Michigan’s first trio of 20 point scorers since 2011 and they carried the Wolverines in almost every statistical category.
Hillsdale was well coached and ran several very effective offensive sets, but Michigan’s defense left much to be desired. The Wolverines struggled to stick with cutters and to communicate on the high ball screen, which left Hillsdale wide open for a number of threes and easy looks. Freshmen and experienced players alike were caught ball watching or sleeping on defense and as a result Hillsdale managed a point per possession. The Chargers shot over 40% from three-point range (10-of-23) and junior forward Kyle Cooper had a career game, finishing with 28 points on 19 field goals.
Michigan’s defensive saving grace was its ability to force turnovers and turn them into easy points on the other end. The Wolverines scored 25 points off of 14 Hillsdale turnovers, but it’s worrisome that the Chargers scored 1.26 points per trip when they didn’t give the ball away.
“This is what we have to do,” the head coach said of the team’s defensive woes. “We have to learn. We’re still trying to find out who we are defensively, our patterns of switching. They exposed that a lot today.”
Many of Michigan’s defensive issues are correctable and teachable problems. Poor rotations and missed assignments are common in November games, especially with a team that has so little experience, but it was painful to think about this defense, as it stands today, facing an offense like Wisconsin any time soon.
Michigan won’t have much time to make fixes because it will be back in action on Monday night, hosting a Bucknell team that squeezed out a home win over Marist on Friday evening.
- Caris LeVert: LeVert flirted with a triple-double, finishing with 20 points, nine assists and eight rebounds in 33 minutes. He let the game come to him throughout the night, playing with his head up and never forcing the issue. Nine assists to zero turnovers is a remarkable stat for a player that never recorded over five assists last season. The offense is Caris LeVert’s and he looks like he’s been running it for years. He got where ever he wanted on the floor and his three-point stroke showed no signs of rust. His ability to crash the defensive glass is critical, not just because of Michigan’s inexperienced frontline, but also because he’s so effective pushing the break and finding people in transition.
- Derrick Walton: I mentioned in the preview that Walton looked a bit passive in the exhibition, but he shook that off quickly. Walton was the one that quelled Hillsdale’s early run with a three-pointer and a strong drive to the basket. He was relentless getting to the free throw line off penetration and just missed a handful of would-be ‘and one’ layups. He had a number of catch-and-shoot threes from his sweet spots in the corners and played a terrific all-around game.
- Zak Irvin: It was nice to see Michigan run several pin-down sets to get Irvin involved in the offense. All three led to open 18-foot jumpers from the wings and Irvin buried all of them. He had a couple of strong straight line drives (he’s improved his ability to attack off an over-aggressive closeout), but he also had a couple of sloppy drives and a turnover. The lone disappointment of Irvin’s sophomore debut is in the rebounding column where he only grabbed one rebound after showing signs of greatly improving in that area throughout the summer.
- Kameron Chatman: Chatman looked like a freshman in his first college game. He wasn’t the only Michigan player to struggle on the defensive end, but he got lost off the ball several times. He recorded a team-high four steals, but some seemed to be the product of drifting out of position rather than playing solid team defense. His highlight offensively was a beautiful behind the back dribble in transition followed by a layup through contact, but other than that he struggled to finish around the basket. He looked just a bit tentative finishing around the rim and will need to improve in that area against stronger competition.
- Mark Donnal: Donnal is doing everything he needs to hold onto the starting spot at the five. He played 26 minutes and was solid if unspectacular. He knocked down a 15-foot baseline jumper with ease and finished with 9 points on 3-of-4 shooting. Donnal had a very nice offensive stretch in the second half and continues to be the most balanced option among Michigan’s frontcourt players.
- Ricky Doyle: Doyle finished with 7 points including a nice catch and finish on a LeVert drop off pass where he shielded his defender beautifully with his body. He had a solid game, but he didn’t do enough to displace Donnal from the starting spot.
- DJ Wilson: Wilson continued to show flashes of what he can bring to the table. He needs to continue to go up strong, he had a roll to the basket blocked from behind, but he did get on the score sheet with a tip-in. The five position looks like it will be his primary position, as he didn’t play any four until the game was out of hand late, and he’ll probably have a shift per half to get involved.
- Spike Albrecht: Albrecht had a perfectly timed steal at the top of the key, which helped Michigan pull away in the first half, but he otherwise struggled to finish in the paint. He missed several of his patented scoop layup shots around the rim that just wouldn’t fall. Albrecht was 2-of-7 on the day with 4 points and two assists.
- Aubrey Dawkins: The goal for any young freshman on the bench is to be ready to play when your name is called. Dawkins made the most of his playing time, finishing with three points and three rebounds in just six minutes. In the first half he checked into the game and drained a three and soared for an offensive rebound on back-to-back possessions. It’s easy to see his role growing as he becomes more comfortable in the offense.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: Perhaps the roughest around the edges among Michigan’s freshmen, Rahkman only played 5 minutes and missed both field goal attempts.