After spending an off-season wondering what Michigan would look like in 2017-18, the first two games of the season have provided more questions than answers.
Michigan knocked off Central Michigan, 72-65, on Monday night, but once again it needed to erase a narrow lead midway through the second half.
Through 80 minutes, we still haven’t seen Michigan’s offense executed against man-to-man defense. We still don’t know how the point guard position is going to shake out. We still don’t know who is the go-to scorer in crunch time. Instead we have a smattering of data points against zone defense looks that Michigan is unlikely to see much of all year.
Michigan might be flirting with disaster by finding itself trapped in narrow games against mid-major opponents, but the good news is that it has figured out how to maneuver its way out down the stretch. The only real way to answer the questions facing this team is to play things out on the court.
A few early tests have provided at least a glimpse of what Michigan might look like down the road, and should make things a bit easier at the first sign of adversity in Maui next week.
Central Michigan played a token three-quarter court press that would drop back into a zone and, as we saw in the opener, Michigan just couldn’t figure things out consistently in the halfcourt. The Wolverines were an elite half court offense last year and had the No. 10 offense in the country against zone defenses, but this year is a different team that just doesn’t have the same ability right now.
To their credit, the Wolverines did manage 1.13 points per possession on the night despite shooting 10-of-34 (29 percent) from three-point range. 64 percent two-point shooting helped and Michigan’s best moments offensively came in transition when it could string together stops and get open looks.
I’m pretty confident in saying that zone defense won’t be some crippling Achilles’ heel for any Beilein-coached team. If this group can’t figure out zone defenses by December, it probably isn’t going to be any better against man-to-man defenses either. Instead, these early zone looks have just exaggerated some of the issues facing this team which isn’t sure who should shoot now or drive then and just how all of the pieces are going to work together.
In game one, it was Charles Matthews, Moritz Wagner and Duncan Robinson carrying the offense. Tonight, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman was the most aggressive player after coasting through the opener. Who is going to be ‘the guy’ in the offense? Right now it is still anyone’s guess.
Michigan’s defense held Central Michigan to 1.02 points per possession despite the Chips making 42 percent of their threes. Once again, turnovers were Michigan’s saving grace on the defensive end of the floor. The Chippewas gave the ball away once every four trips down the court and Michigan turned those 14 giveaways into 15 points.
The key question to ask about Michigan’s early season defense is whether CMU and North Florida’s hot three-point shooting is ‘luck’ — or statistical noise — or a major problem. The Chippewas hit some tough triples, but Michigan has allowed 19-of-39 three-point shooting through two games (49%).
It’s still early in the season, but we started to see the true rotation is in the second half. Both Eli Brooks and Ibi Watson played in the first half, but didn’t see the floor in the second when the game was close. That means that Jaaron Simmons, Isaiah Livers and Jon Teske appear to be the 6, 7 and 8 men in the rotation as things stand.
The most relieving news for Michigan might be that Southern Miss played 100% man-to-man in its opener and only zoned up on 10% of its defensive possessions a season ago. The Wolverines host the Golden Eagles on Thursday night in their final pre-Maui Invitational tune-up and should relish the opportunity to play some of their base offense against a man-to-man look.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: After criticizing him for being far too passive in the opener, Abdur-Rahkman stepped up to the challenge in game number two. He finished with team highs of 17 points and 4 assists and hit several key shots for Michigan whenever the game got close. He made the plays that you’d expect a four-year rotation player to make when the game was close and Michigan needed a basket whether it was a big three, a pivoting circus layup or a strong take to the basket.
- Zavier Simpson: Simpson is a disruptive defender and clearly made an impact on that end of the floor. He had two steals and more deflections, and also got involved in the scoring column. He hit the shots that he needs to make to prove he’s dangerous, including a couple of deep threes and a one-handed driving layup, and finished with 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting.
- Jon Teske: Teske was thrust onto the floor in two critical moments — after two Wagner fouls for the final 4 minutes of the first half and after Wagner rolled his ankle in the second — and he answered the challenge. Beilein called it “the best he’s ever played” and I’d have to agree. He has the ability to be really good defensively and the way he used his length and lateral quickness to stay in front of and then wall off smaller defenders was impressive.
- Charles Matthews: In the first half of the opener I thought Matthews was taking good shots and missing them. Tonight, the situation was flipped. I thought he forced a few early misses and then started passing up open looks. The tools and talent are there and they show in flashes — a Euro-step dunk, a couple of key defensive stops, a critical three in crunch time — but there are still plenty of uncertain moments for Matthews on the floor. A lot of it feels mental right now as he’s just trying to feel his way back into the game and making decisions with the lights on.
- Jaaron Simmons: After a quiet first half, Simmons sparked the run that gave Michigan its ultimate lead in the second. First he hit a three that gave Michigan the lead, then found Matthews on the ensuing possession for another three to put the Wolverines up five. I thought he did a much better job of just playing basketball in the second half whereas he’s looked a bit paralyzed by thought in earlier action.
- Duncan Robinson: Michigan won’t be able to survive Duncan Robinson shooting 2-of-8 from three when he’s getting mostly open looks — especially against zone looks. It’s no secret that his defense is a weakness, but he proved on Saturday how effective of an offensive weapon he can be. Tonight, he was in the right spots but the shots weren’t falling.
- Moritz Wagner: Wagner has now recorded back-to-back double-doubles and has obviously made significant strides on the defensive glass. I like his aggression scoring around the basket at times, but his three-point shot has looked a little off since the summer.
- Isaiah Livers: Livers seems to get to the right spots, but hasn’t quite finished plays. He got pushed off of a putback and missed an open three, but does bring length and athleticism backing up the four. He could be a key down the line, but it will be interesting to see how he develops because he brings a new element to the mix.
- Eli Brooks: Brooks only played 3 minutes and was whistled for a foul in the first half. Beilein said “it wasn’t the time for freshmen to be on the floor” late and that’s going to be an uphill climb for Brooks given the other two options.
- Ibi Watson: Watson played three minutes in the first half and didn’t find the stat sheet and Charles Matthews played all 20 minutes in the second half. The battle here might be whether Watson earns those backup wing minutes or Michigan slides players up or down to rest Matthews in the future.