Max Bielfeldt wasn’t even in the conversation.
For the last six months we’ve picked apart seemingly every player and lineup combination that Michigan could feature. We wrote stories about returning stars, freshmen and returning stars. Bielfeldt’s name was mentioned only in passing, or when he underwent hip surgery.
He didn’t see the floor in Michigan’s season opener and it’s safe to say that more than a few eyebrows were raised when No. 44 got the call off the bench rather than Ricky Doyle or DJ Wilson.
Max Bielfeldt? The same player that managed just a 36% eFG% last season and recorded more than twice as many fouls as made baskets?
Bucknell freshman Nana Foulland appeared to feel the same way, immediately leaving Bielfeldt wide open for a pick-and-pop three-pointer from the top of the key. Then it went in. Then another went in. By the time halftime rolled around Bielfeldt had 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting. At the final buzzer Bielfeldt had a career high 18 points and had topped last year’s season totals of 15 points and six made field goals.
The 6-foot-7 Peoria native’s spark off the bench helped Michigan cruise to an easy 77-53 victory over Bucknell was never in doubt and added yet another layer to Michigan’s array of unproven frontcourt options.
Michigan’s offense was scalding hot in the first half, running out to 1.44 points per possession before cooling off in the second. The Wolverines shot 47% on twos and 44% on threes for a 52% eFG% on the night. Michigan turned the ball over on less than 10% of its offensive possessions for the second consecutive game and were also able to score 15 second chance points against what was the second-best defensive rebounding team in the country last season.
The Wolverines set the tone early on with their defense. Michigan recorded stops on Bucknell’s first five possessions and turned them into an early 10-0 lead. The start was just the opposite of the Hillsdale where Michigan came out flat and gave up a handful of easy baskets and starting quickly was an obvious focus for the Wolverines.
Beilein hinted the offseason that he wasn’t quite sure where this team would make its mark on defense. It’s only two games, but the Wolverines look like a team that could force more turnovers than any of Beilein’s recent groups. Bucknell gave the ball away on over a quarter of its offensive possessions and Michigan recorded seven steals. The more aggressive Michigan defense has also translated to easy offense, Bucknell’s 12 first half turnovers in 33 first half possessions led to 10 easy Wolverine points.
If it weren’t for a torrid five minute stretch by Chris Hass late in the second half, this would have been an even more impressive defensive performance. As it was, Michigan held the Bison to just .78 points per trip, controlling the defensive glass and holding Bucknell to just 30% three-point shooting and 46% two-point shooting. There were still some missed rotations and early season hiccups from a young team, but it was a clear step in the right direction just 48 hours after a disappointing defensive performance in the season opener.
Michigan’s big men all struggled at least once in one-on-one post-up isolations that resulted in either fouls or made baskets. The young bigs need to do a better job of using their lower body to force opposing big men out of the lane, but the fact remains that Michigan is almost always going to have to double-team the more skilled post-players on its schedule.
I questioned in the preview whether Bucknell could give Michigan a little more than it bargained for, but there was never any doubt in the outcome. Next up for the Wolverines is a Thursday night game against a Detroit team that is likely more talented, but less structured than the Bison.
- Derrick Walton: Bucknell didn’t have anyone that could stay in front of Walton and he was in attack mode from the opening jump. This was who Walton was as a prep player and now he’s added the explosiveness to allow him to play at that level in college. Walton led Michigan in FTA for the second consecutive game and finished with an efficient 15 points on nine shot attempts. He was only credited with two assists, but that number didn’t do him justice as he had a number of good passes that resulted in free throws. He also might be the best 6-foot rebounder in the country, leading Michigan with eight rebounds on the night.
- Caris LeVert: LeVert played one of the best 2-of-11 shooting games possible. He just couldn’t find the bottom of the basket with his jumper, but he set the tone with six assists in the opening 20 minutes. LeVert struggled in the mid-range game, a recurring problem from last season, but his ability to facilitate and rebound was critical. He also landed Bucknell’s ace defensive stopper, Ryan Frazier, on the bench with early foul trouble.
- Max Bielfeldt: We laughed when Beilein said that Max was ‘unguardable’ in practice last year at the Big Ten Tournament, but Bielfeldt’s jumper looked very good. He gives up a lot of size down low which causes Michigan some issues on the defensive glass, but as a change of pace stretch big man there’s a chance he could find a niche.
- Zak Irvin: Michigan has done a terrific job of dialing up simple wrinkles in the offense to get Irvin the ball for easy jump shots. It doesn’t take much space for him to get open and he’s been essentially automatic so far this season. After a 4-of-5 three-point shooting night on Monday, Irvin is 7-of-11 from long-range for the season with a 78% eFG%. Seth Davis was harping on the importance of Irvin attacking the basket and getting to the free throw line. While that would be nice, Irvin has managed to show off his increased athleticism plenty. There wasn’t a better example of Camp Sanderson paying off than his strong and-one layup transition for Michigan’s third basket of the game.
- Kameron Chatman: Chatman struggled for the second straight game, going 1-of-5 from the floor and still appearing to be a step slow on many of his defensive rotations. His talent and ability was still evident, and he did tally 3 assists and two steals, but he’s stuck in a bit of a limbo between one step forward and two steps back. For instance, on back-to-back possessions in the second half Chatman was able to come away with a steal only to follow with a poor alley-oop pass and an offensive foul. If he continues to struggle, it’s clear that the alternative that Beilein is most comfortable with is inserting Albrecht (29 minutes) for Chatman and sliding the other guards and wings up a spot.
- Mark Donnal: Donnal only played 11 minutes, but he did some nice things on the floor. He had several good help side rotations, blocking two shots, and also had a very nice offensive rebound and putback. His ability to move and rotate better than Doyle seems like it will keep him ahead in the pecking order for now.
- Spike Albrecht: Albrecht was able to play the sort of game that he loves to play as he kept his dribble, rejected screens and weaved along the baseline before rattling off laser passes. He finished with six assists in 29 minutes, but it will be much more difficult to play that sort of game against better competition. Albrecht’s early season shooting has been something of a concern as he’s just 3-of-12 from the floor, failing to find his touch at the bucket or from long-range.
- DJ Wilson: Wilson’s versatility on the defensive end should continue to earn him situational minutes this season. He had a very nice help-side block and he continued to show very good footwork hedging the high ball screen. He doesn’t have the strength to hold his own inside against stronger five-men, and he missed his only jump shot attempt badly, but he’ll be on the floor against perimeter oriented offenses as he improves.
- Ricky Doyle: Doyle is comfortable playing physically offensively, but he didn’t always have the quick lift to be able to finish even when he grabbed an offensive rebound. That being said, he did have two highlights: a nice half hook and a powerful pick-and-roll finish.
- Aubrey Dawkins: Dawkins didn’t get much of a chance to make an impact, registering one offensive rebound and a turnover in five minutes.
- Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman: It looks like it’s going to take some time for Abdur-Rahkman to find his way in Michigan’s offense. The transition from a high school offense that was predominantly isolation to a structured offense like Michigan’s isn’t easy, especially when you’re thrown into the game as a primary ball handler when you’re on the floor.