Nothing screams college basketball season opener quite like a game with more personal fouls than made baskets. Michigan came out of the gates slowly, failing to score before the first media timeout, but worked its way past Howard on Friday night for a 76-58 victory.
The Wolverine offense looked stagnant at times as it attempted to figure out Howard’s match-up zone, and a second half scoring drought allowed the Bison to trim the lead to just five points in the second half, but Michigan was always in control and pulled away with a routine opening night victory on the backs of Derrick Walton and DJ Wilson.
Howard’s inability to hit free throws — 14-of-29 at the stripe — and the absence of leading scorer James Daniel certainly helped the Wolverines, but Michigan hit its freebies (23-of-26) and took care of business in the win.
The Wolverine offense was up-and-down as it tried to figure out Howard’s match-up zone. That’s a tough defense to face in the first game of the season after spending the majority of the preseason preparing to face man-to-man looks, but eventually the Wolverines started to crack it open. Michigan shot just 46% on twos, but did knock in 38% of its three-point attempts and 16 of 22 made field goals were assisted against the Howard zone.
The Wolverines also rebounded a third of their misses (for 18 second chance points) and got to the free throw line almost as often as Howard. I’m not expecting the Wolverines to live at the free throw line this season, but the 50% free throw rate is impressive considering that this team managed that feat only three times last season.
Michigan held Howard to .89 points per possession overall in what I’d call a pretty standard defensive performance. The Bison turned the ball over on a quarter of their offensive possessions including 9 live ball steals (and 4 blocks) by the Wolverines. Those steals and blocks are one of the most noticeable changes in defensive philosophy from a season ago.
Howard attempted 29 free throws to 43 free throw attempts (67% FTA/FGA) and Michigan didn’t allow a free throw rate over 46% last season. I’d hesitate to point to this game as an example of a more aggressive defensive philosophy as much as it was the first game of the season against a team that scored a Division 1-leading 28.7% of its points at the free throw line last season. These foul-heavy game are just a product of the style that Howard plays.
That being said, Michigan needs to do a much better job of avoiding ticky-tack fouls chasing loose balls or pushing off on rebounding attempts. It’s great to hustle for those plays, but too many experienced Wolverines found themselves on the bench with fouls they shouldn’t commit. There’s no reason that four juniors or seniors should pick up two first half fouls.
The rotation is also starting to tighten now that the games count. Michigan started Walton, Abdur-Rahkman, Irvin, Robinson and Wagner and played Wilson, Simpson and Donnal as the core rotation off the bench in the first half. In the second half, that rotation was even tighter and Simpson didn’t play until there was 2:56 left in the game.
Michigan looked far from perfect, but a win is a win early in the season. Now they’ll have to regroup and prepare to face IUPUI on Sunday (the Jaguars lost 97-87 at Eastern Kentucky tonight).
- Derrick Walton: Walton was more aggressive looking for his shot and made 4-of-7 triples, splitting his only two shots inside the arc. He racked up three assists and only one rebound, but seemed to get sped up in transition and turned the ball over three times. His three-point shooting was critical midway through the second half when Howard had trimmed the lead and he hit a few from very deep. The biggest concern was his leg as he seemed to jam it late in the second half, he reported after the game to BTN-Plus that he ‘jammed his ankle’ and seemed confident that he’d be okay — he played almost the entire second half.
- DJ Wilson: Wilson scored 9 points, grabbed 8 rebounds and dished two assists in 20 minutes with all of that production coming in his 14 second half minutes. He was critical to Michigan’s best stretches in the second half, playing an active role in the middle of the Howard zone — a threat to shoot or pass — and getting after it on the glass with a couple of big follow-ups. Wilson has come close to a double-double in the exhibition and now tonight and he looks like he could be an x-factor off the bench.
- Mark Donnal: After being outplayed in the exhibition, Donnal stated his case for the five position on Friday night. He finished with 12 points and six rebounds in 23 minutes and was aggressive on the offensive glass. He also knocked in a 17-foot jumper in the first half and was the more reliable of Michigan’s two bigs.
- Zak Irvin: Irvin showed a lot of the same flaws that plagued him last season. His jumper continues to be very inconsistent and he overcomplicates his drives to the basket in transition or in the half court. He still showed a few flashes and hit a couple of big shots in the second half, but Michigan is going to need better than 11 points on 4-of-13 shooting from its senior wing.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: Abdur-Rahkman hit two threes to open the game that helped Michigan out of an early slump, but then he battled foul trouble for the rest of the night. Abdur-Rahkman only played 18 minutes and was 2-of-5 from the floor with two assists and four fouls.
- Duncan Robinson: Robinson knocked down a first half three, but was just 1-of-6 from the floor overall with 2 assists. He didn’t look very confident shooting the ball and if he continues to slump, I wouldn’t be surprised to see DJ Wilson continue to eat into his minutes.
- Moritz Wagner: Wagner is going to try to do his thing, even when everything isn’t quite clicking. He played only 15 minutes and got a quick hook from Beilein on a couple of occasions when he made poor decisions, but he also had 3 steals, a transition dunk and a block. Beilein seemed a bit frustrated with his decision making and a blown defensive assignment early in the second half.
- Xavier Simpson: Simpson had a great stretch in the first half, knocking in a corner three and then picking up a steal on the defensive end. He’s going to get into trouble playing with his off arm (he was whistled for a foul on a first half drive) at this level, but this was a much better performance than his exhibition night.
- Ibi Watson: Watson didn’t see minutes as early in the game, but ended up playing eight minutes on the night including several late in the first half with other Wolverines on the bench with two fouls. He had a nice second half drive and finish and handed out an assist but missed his only three-point attempt of the evening.
- Jon Teske: Teske played two late minutes and Austin Davis didn’t play, a sign that he’s in line to play those third big minutes in the rotation.