Michigan’s first three games provided little challenge and proved little more than the fact that Michigan now has the athleticism to overwhelm weaker opposition. Wednesday’s 67-62 win over Pittsburgh was a reminder that this new-look team has toughness too. Pittsburgh trotted into Madison Square Garden with a bigger lineup and plenty of talent but Michigan took the Panthers’ best shot on the chin before regrouping and knocking off the Panthers.
For the first time this season, John Beilein’s team played with its back to the wall and passed the test with flying colors. Four Wolverines reached double figures but those four were the only players to score during the second half. It was Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III that carried the bulk of the Michigan offense through the comeback effort as the duo made eight of Michigan’s 12 second half field goals and assisted on two others.
Michigan’s offense struggled to shoot the ball from the perimeter, connecting on just 18 percent of its three point attempts, but was able to scrap together 1.12 points per trip. Michigan continued to finish well around the basket, 61% on twos, despite Pittsburgh’s length and athleticism in the paint. Pitt entered the game as one of the best shot-blocking teams in the country but didn’t block a single Wolverine attempt.
The difference in this script was that Michigan was able to manufacture a win despite shooting poorly from three point range. Michigan didn’t continue to fire from long range, attempting just 34% of its shots from beyond the arc, rebounded 33 percent of its missed shots and got to the line often. The Wolverines overcame poor shooting in ways that they simply haven’t been able in past seasons.
Defensively, Michigan hit some snags. Pittsburgh hit 5-of-12 threes in the first half and gave Michigan fits with the high pick-and-roll. In the second half, John Beilein countered with the 1-3-1 zone and it was enough to change the complexion of the game. Michigan’s 1-3-1 has been stashed away in some back closet of John Beilein’s brain but apparently it’s still being practiced. It was also more effective than we’ve seen in recent seasons because of the length and athleticism on the wings. With Nik Stauskas (6-6) at the top, Tim Hardaway Jr. (6-6) and Glenn Robinson III (6-6) on the wings, Mitch McGary (6-10) in the middle and Trey Burke running the baseline suddenly the zone becomes a turnover machine. Pittsburgh never looked comfortable against the zone and even when Michigan wasn’t forcing turnovers, it was getting deflections.
The zone was a game-changer but Michigan won this game with its defensive rebounding. The Wolverines grabbed over 81% of Pittsburgh’s missed shots – compare that to Pitt’s 46.2% offensive rebounding rate on the season entering Wednesday night’s game and you have the game story. Pitt’s offense, similar to Michigan State, is predicated on corralling those second chances and turning them into second chance points. Pitt scored just five second chance points, all in the first half.
Often times winning ugly is more important than winning pretty. There are plenty of teams across the country that can win on their best nights but being able to withstand another team’s best shot without playing a perfect game is what separates good teams from great teams. On Wednesday, Michigan proved that its new toys are legitimate threats. The Wolverines are a team that can battle around the basket, win the rebounding battle (on both ends) and defend — winning games without the three point shot.
That’s not to say there weren’t teaching moments in the tough win. Michigan’s ability to play two posts, even against a much bigger Pitt front line, is still just a work in progress as U-M leaned on two posts for little more than six minutes of clock time. Pittsburgh executed well down the stretch but Michigan’s free throw shooting held and kept the Panthers at bay. The two most impressive late free throws came from Robinson, who made a pair after missing two earlier in the half.
Next up is a Kansas State squad that squeaked past Delaware to move to 5-0 in Wednesday’s early game. The Wildcats have returning experience even though they have a new man in charge – former Illinois coach Bruce Weber.
- Tim Hardaway Jr.: Hardaway struggled in the first half. He settled for long jumpers and his defensive effort left something to be desired. John Beilein even opted to replace him with Eso Akunne at one point. The only two highlights of his first half were two strong plays where he rebounded the ball and took it coast-to-coast for a score. In the second half, he began to attack. Hardaway was aggressive in slashing the ball to the basket and the rewards followed. He finished the game 5-of-6 on twos and got to the line three times. Hardaway managed to maintain his composure despite early shooting woes and that resiliency was perhaps even more impressive than the fact that his newfound handles – 1 turnover – held up against an aggressive Pittsburgh defense.
- Glenn Robinson III: Robinson finished the night with 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting with five rebounds and a block, steal and assist. He was absolutely critical in the second half including a triple, mid-range jumper and a tip-in down the stretch. What was perhaps the most impressive element of his strong finish to the night was that he really hit some hiccups in the first half – he was ripped for an easy bucket, missed some early jumpers, and didn’t seem all that comfortable – before making all of those plays in the second. He also showed off his athleticism with a monster block at the rim. He makes plays that scream ‘pro’ but he needs to continue to be more assertive offensively. 5-of-8 is nice but there’s no reason he shouldn’t be accumulating double-digit shot attempts often by the end of the year.
- Nik Stauskas: Vogrich started the game but the Stauskas era may have arrived. The 6-foot-6 Canadian simply makes too many plays to keep him off of the floor. You can’t leave him open (see his first made three) and he’s versatile enough to make defenders pay for taking away the three. 15 points on 4-of-8 (1-4 3pt) shooting with five rebounds, six free throws, a block and a steal is a monster game for a freshman in his first collegiate game against a high-major opponent. He had a nifty finish at the rim, knocked down long pull up jumpers off of both the pump-fake and spin and even tried to dunk on someone when driving the hole. His offensive game is complete and he’s playing with confidence, five rebounds is just icing on the cake.
- Trey Burke: There’s a lot to digest with Trey Burke’s performance. Michigan’s offense certainly stagnated at times, and Burke took some ill-advised shots but he was also left in late shot clock situations quite a bit. A lot of credit needs to go to Pittsburgh for playing strong defense and forcing Michigan into “shot clock shots”. Burke absolutely needs to avoid the 30-foot jumpers (at any point) which trigger painful memories of Michigan’s NCAA tournament loss. Despite his struggles, he also still made a lot of plays for Michigan. He had six of Michigan’s eight total assists to just one turnover (which means he accounted for nearly half of U-M’s offense). He also had a huge buzzer beater in the first half and made some really great plays pushing the ball all the way to the hole in transition. Overall it was a forgettable night from the long threes to a foolish foul in the final seconds and Burke definitely seemed to get caught up in the moment just a bit.
- Jordan Morgan: Morgan has been the unsung hero of Michigan’s early season success. He’s not doing anything spectacular but he’s playing hard and giving solid and reliable minutes on the block. He grabbed eight rebounds (four offensive) and played 29 minutes and had a couple of nice finishes (although he still has the tendency to hesitate when caught in that middle ground). It’s clear that Beilein trusts him, given his significant workload early in the season.
- Mitch McGary: McGary made some mistakes – a charge, botched outlet pass stand and blown pick and roll switch stand out– but he’s also making energy plays while he’s on the floor. McGary grabbed three rebounds (1 offensive) and two steals (including one he took the distance with a nice finger role) in 13 minutes. He was disruptive in the middle of Michigan’s 1-3-1 zone defense and will only continue to improve as he learns to be physical while avoiding foul trouble (4 in 13 minutes).
- Matt Vogrich: Vogrich was overpowered while attempting to box out a Pitt player early and saw a lot of the bench from that time on. He ended up playing just eight minutes to Stauskas’s 33 and its tough to imagine that his days as a starter aren’t limited.