It was around this time last year that Michigan’s season went down the drain. The Wolverines had just won an emotional Big Ten-ACC Challenge game and were 6-1, ranked 20th nationally according to KenPom and looked to be on their way to another successful season. Then almost exactly one year ago to the day, the Wolverines suffered a catastrophic upset to NJIT and never looked the same.
That loss turned into four in a row and the Wolverines’ season was essentially over by Christmas — the January news of Caris LeVert’s injury would only compound Michigan’s problems.
When Houston Baptist cut Michigan’s lead to just two points late in the first half on Saturday afternoon on a quick barrage four quick three-pointers — the Huskies were a 28% three-point shooting team — the NJIT flashbacks were inevitable. There’s no question that a bit of doubt crept into the minds of fans and players alike — not again.
But Michigan regrouped with a run of its own, stretching its lead back to nine points at the half, before coasting to the 25 point victory. The script was the one that Michigan fans were supposed to see last season in a similar game and while a win over Houston Baptist by itself says very little, it was encouraging to see Michigan take care of business in a potential trap game.
This didn’t feel like an extraordinary offensive performance by Michigan given the competition, but that’s an important sign that this offense is a lot better than last year’s. Michigan topped 1.2 points per possession in just three games last year — Hillsdale, Nicholls State and Rutgers. Tonight’s 1.25 points per possession marked the fourth time that Michigan has reached that mark in eight games. The Wolverines shot 48% on threes, but also made 14 of 21 shots at the rim in the victory. Michigan isn’t going to lose many games when it gives the ball away on just 9% of its possessions and hits almost half of its threes.
Defensively, Michigan did a great job of forcing turnovers and cleaning up the defensive glass. The Huskies gave the ball away on over a fifth of their offensive possessions — many of which were unforced — and rebounded only 18% of their misses on the night. Houston Baptist actually had more attempts at the rim than Michigan, but made only 8-of-24 shots near the basket. Michigan bigs, especially Ricky Doyle, did a surprisingly good job of contesting and using their bodies to bump shooters just enough to make those attempts just uncomfortable enough.
KenPom predicted an 83-60 victory and Michigan rolled to an 82-57 win so this was pretty much an as-expected win against a decidedly over-matched opponent. Michigan heads on the road again Tuesday for the last remaining ‘swing game’ of its non-conference season against undefeated SMU. The Mustangs don’t have many quality victories this year, but are one of the favorites to win the AAC this year. A road win for the Wolverines against a team that won on their court last season could salvage an up-and-down non-conference season.
- Caris LeVert: LeVert is playing some of the best basketball of his career. His improvement this season stems from his dedication to attacking the basket rather than settling. He’s raised his 2-point shooting percentage 9% and is attempting almost twice as many free throws per game. With Walton out, LeVert didn’t really step up as a distributor (just one assist), but he got to the basket early and often (5-of-7 on twos) and finished with 10 free throw attempts and eight rebounds en route to 25 points on 13 shot attempts.
- Duncan Robinson: Duncan Robinson’s shooting ability is a game-changer in this offense. When he started the game cold, Houston Baptist crept back in as fans wondering how it was possible that he missed three shots in a row. When he heated up, he got Michigan back to a solid lead at the half and then blew the game open in the second. Robinson scored 19 points on 12 shots (5-9 3pt) and the more shots he can get the better. Robinson has already made five threes in three different games and is 17 of his last 26 since the UConn loss. Those shooting numbers are ridiculous.
- Zak Irvin: Irvin’s jumper still doesn’t look close (his one three-point make came after he got a mid-range shot blocked), but I was impressed with his floor game overall. He handed out a team-high five assists and had a couple of strong drives to the basket. Michigan needs him to find his shooting stroke again (there were too many lineups with multiple non-shooters on the floor given Walton’s injury today), but some of those ball skills that flourished last year are still evident.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: Abdur-Rahkman provided a steady dose of hard drives to the basket and was 3-of-7 on twos. You’d like to see him make a few more, but the intention was good and several setup offensive rebounding opportunities as well. I loved his perimeter defense, he does a great job of using his chest against driving players, in a solid, but unspectacular night.
- Spike Albrecht: It was great to see Spike Albrecht get into the game and make a few vintage Spike Albrecht plays. He got on the floor after a loose ball despite two injured hips and also handed out four dimes in just 12 minutes. Seeing his feel for the offense and ability to find guys in the right spots is a reminder of just how valuable he could be this year if he’s able to get a little healthier.
- Aubrey Dawkins: This was an up-and-down game for Dawkins. He had a handful of plays that looked to be the start of something good that were immediately followed by plays that earned him a quick seat on the bench — defensive woes or awkward moments traveling with the ball. He padded his stats effectively in garbage time by knocking down a few threes and getting to the line. Hopefully seeing the ball go in a few times will build some confidence moving forward because the Wolverines will need him sooner or later.
- Ricky Doyle: Doyle only had two points on 1 of 3 shooting, but I thought he played a pretty strong game. He was very solid defensively against HBU players that have legitimate size and grabbed 7 rebounds (3 offensive, 4 defensive) in the win — a major reason the Huskies shot 33% at the rim.
- Moritz Wagner: Sometimes freshmen look like freshmen. Wagner was whistled for a few tick-tack fouls hedging early on and his pick-and-roll defense was disappointing overall. He had a strong take off the bounce, but missed the finish and scored his only point on a nice catch near the basket before getting fouled.
- DJ Wilson: Wilson saw 6 minutes of playing time and scored 4 points on a turnaround jumper in the post and a big dunk that was setup by a few tipped balls by Aubrey Dawkins and Spike Albrecht. There are some things that Wilson can bring to the table, but right now I think he’s pigeonholed into that No. 3 big man role if Doyle and Wagner are struggling or hampered by fouls
- Kameron Chatman: The game seems to still be moving too far for Kam. He was whistled for three fouls in four minutes, but the mistakes continue to outweigh the positive plays — like his nice backdoor feed to Duncan Robinson.
- Mark Donnal: Donnal split two of four free throws and was always stuffed at the rim in seven minutes.