Michigan was supposed to win big, and it did win big. Even without starting point guard Derrick Walton — whom senior guard Caris LeVert likened to the team’s quarterback after the game — the Wolverines made Houston Baptist look like it deserved its KenPom ranking of 324th.
There were a couple slip-ups, but plenty of highlights to be found for Michigan. We break down the Five Key Plays of the game:
1. LeVert and friends cruise to early start
The Huskies eventually scored, but the first three minutes belonged to the Wolverines. Though without Walton, Michigan had no trouble establishing ball movement, forcing turnovers and driving to the basket.
Much of the credit belongs to LeVert, but the aggression showcased by sophomores Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman helped the Wolverines get out to an early lead and make it clear they had learned their lesson from last season’s loss to the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
“We kind of made it a point in practice that today’s the day we lost to NJIT and that we didn’t want to sleep on this team,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “We wanted to come out with the same intensity as we would against a top-25 team — no lacking on offense or defense and do our best.”
2. Huskies close gap with threes
Though it took nearly four minutes to score, eventually Houston Baptist caught fire midway through the first half. The Huskies had been shooting just 28-percent from 3-point range entering Saturday’s matchup, so no one blamed Michigan for easing up on the perimeter. But when Houston Baptist drained four 3s in a row, the Wolverines were reminded of ugly upsets of seasons’ past.
Seemingly finding the open man on every possession and with a stroke of luck, the Huskies turned a should-be blowout into another stressful Saturday in a matter of minutes.
“I thought the end of the first half when they made three or four threes, it just shows you the power of the three,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “I think they hit four in a row, and a 14-point game became a two-point game.”
Eventually the Wolverines stepped up on defense and the Huskies cooled off, but the 11-point lead in the opening minutes had dissipated.
3. Houston Baptist turns the ball over … and the game
The Huskies can hang their hat on pulling the game to within two late in the first half, but it didn’t take long for the pride to wane. It’s no secret that Michigan has an explosive offense (it is ranked 10th in the nation in adjusted efficiency and 7th in eFG%), so it didn’t take long for the Wolverines to pull away yet again.
The key, of course, was getting into position to do so. Forcing turnovers on 24-percent of Houston Baptist’s possessions, Michigan showed it can win with offense, but only if it brings the defense, too.
“We stepped up our defensive intensity,” said redshirt sophomore forward Duncan Robinson. “If you can get stops, that’s when you can go on long runs.”
In total, the Wolverines scored 16 points off turnovers.
4. Duncan does it again
As automatic as Robinson’s 3-point shooting, we include his hot streaks in our Five Key Plays. Robinson actually got off to a slow start, missing his first three threes, but reclaimed his usual smooth stroke, settling for 19 points on 7-of-12 shooting.
“There’s a lot of good shooters out there, but he’s 6-foot-8,” Beilein said. “You (as a defender) close out when you’re 6-4 and (Duncan) has a quick release that he’s worked hard at, it’s tough to get to him.”
Robinson continues to provide a spark off the bench. He is second on the team with 11.5 points per game despite not yet earning a single start. His defense remains a liability at times, but the team continues to send the offense through him when he’s on the court, even with a slow start.
“Every time he misses I’m more confident the next one is going to go in,” Beilein said. “I’m sure — knock on wood — that he’s going to have off days. We saw it against Northern Michigan, we saw it against UConn, he’s going to have off days. We just have to live through it, because he’s going to have more on days than off.”
5. Spike being Spike
Abdur-Rahkman and LeVert ate up most of Walton’s minutes as lead guard, but Spike Albrecht once again found some playing time. Despite still rehabbing from injury and often attending physical therapy instead of practice, the senior made plenty of plays on the court.
Tallying four assists in just 12 minutes, Albrecht, could be seen sacrificing his body on loose balls, scrambling all around the court and making no-look passes to set up plays for his teammates.
“He’s doing everything he’s gotta do,” Beilein said. “I don’t think you can turn that on and off. I want him out there to do what he just did so he gets through it. Every day is another step in this process to get back as close as he can to who he is.”
Beilein admitted after the game that Albrecht’s recovery has been slow, and that there’s a chance that the guard never regains the physical abilities he had earlier in his career. But with a month to go before Big Ten play begins, the focus has been on getting Albrecht back on the court so he can contribute, even if it is just in spare moments.
“The tap-back play to D.J., how many guys do you see that can make that play?” Beilein said. “That’s what we’re missing out of him and that’s a big factor with this team … We’ve got to do everything we can to get him ready.”