Since Michigan’s a basketball school now (recycled joke, but particularly poignant this week), let’s dive into its 84-67 dismantling of North Carolina on Wednesday night.
Three days after the Wolverines shut down then-ranked No. 8 Villanova, the Wildcats lost to Furman in overtime, leaving many wondering if Michigan was that good or if Villanova was that bad.
A good test: No. 11 North Carolina. The Tar Heels entered the game third in offensive efficiency. The Wolverines were going to find out if their defense (first in efficiency) was the lock-down group we thought it was prior to Villanova’s slip-up to Furman, and if it wasn’t, could the Michigan offense keep pace with UNC?
Yes to both.
Charles Matthews hit shots
He led the team in minutes, he held Cam Johnson to five points, he led the team in rebounds (7), his Irvin-esque midrange game was on (3/4), he got another block, he had a couple thunderous dunks, but most surprisingly, Charles Matthews hit 50% of his 3-point attempts (2/4). If the redshirt junior can just hit 35% of his triples the rest of the season, it would take his already good all-around game and make it great. Might be too much to ask of a guy that’s only hitting 24% of his 3s right now, but it would give the offense yet-another dimension.
Matthews is one of the best players in the Big Ten and would probably get more attention for the Big Ten Player of The Year Award if the Wolverines weren’t so balanced, but there are still plenty of areas he can improve in. His handle is still a little rough (three turnovers against UNC), and for a guy with the ball in his hand so much, he doesn’t find his teammates too often (one assist against UNC). 5/8 on free throws was an improvement but still leaves a little to be desired.
These few, minor shortcomings are a good thing! Michigan will probably be deserving of a top-five ranking when the next round of polls come out, it’s undefeated, and one of its best players is just starting to scratch his ceiling.
Dick Vitale has unfortunately jumped on the “Charlie” bandwagon. The Wolverines have good luck with guys named Charles (sorry to remind you about football.) Let’s keep it that way, Mr. Vitale.
As good as he was, Matthews was not Michigan’s leading scorer. That honor went to…
Ignas Brazdeikis, contortionist
The freshman drew an awful lot of “Diaper Dandy” talk from Vitale, and a lot of it had to do with Iggy’s success at the rim. Brazdeikis went 6-for-8 when he got into the paint, bending his ambidextrous limbs every which way in order to get buckets. You want the ball in his hands.
But you also don’t want the ball in his hands… kind of. Brazdeikis can break defenders down off the dribble, but against the Tar Heels he excelled in knowing exactly when to cut to the rim when he didn’t have the rock. His high success rate at the rim was partly because some of his attempts received only token challenges by trailing defenders.
His shooting was once again on point. 50% (2/4) on 3s and 4-for-6 from the charity stripe. He’s hitting a quality 39% of his triples and leads the starters in free throw percentage (79).
It’s hard to know what you’ll get from a freshman on defense, and Brazdeikis has his lapses (he committed a bad foul on the perimeter in the first half), but the Lithuanian via Canada makes more good plays on D than bad. In the second half, Iggy harassed UNC’s Nassir Little, who finished with four points, into a travel.
English is not Brazdeikis’s first language (although you wouldn’t know hearing him talk), but he seems to have deciphered Beilein’s offense and assistant coach Luke Yaklich’s defense faster than any other newcomer.
The only Michigan player that hit more 3s than Brazdeikis on Wednesday was…
Jordan Poole, who has found his 3-point stroke
I’ve been down on the sophomore this season because he struggled from beyond the arc early, and he didn’t seem to bring much when he wasn’t canning triples, but Poole had a breakout game against UNC.
5/8 on 3s, including a couple of circus shots that reminded me of his Feb.-April ’18 hot streak, and Poole’s now up to 40% on the year. Poole seems hardwired to keep the ball in his hands (blame it on the swag overdose), but on Wednesday he was second on the team with four assists, bringing him into a tie for second on the team in assists per game (2.1), a developing part of his arsenal.
He was 2/3 in late-clock situations (mostly of the step-back 3 variety), which is helpful, but I’d still like to see Brazdeikis get most those attempts (Iggy was 1/1 in that scenario against UNC). Poole isn’t great around the rim (1/4 on Wednesday), and it’s contributing to his 42% field goal percentage, good for only eighth on the team.
Poole will never be known for his defense, but he was only blown by once against UNC and made a couple nice plays on that end of the court later to make up for it. Plus, Poole was tied for second on the team in rebounds (5). He’s hustling, but no Wolverine hustled harder than…
Jon Teske, nothing little about him
Vitale seemed fond of calling the things Teske was doing “little.” And it is surprising to see a guy Duncan Robinson nicknamed “The Big Sleep” successfully diving for loose balls, but the seven footer’s game remains BIG, no doubt about it. He tied his season-high with five swats and altered countless others. His timing on blocks is impeccable, and he had to have been a big reason why Tar Heel ball-handlers stopped trying to drive to the hoop. He simply erased several UNC possessions.
According to coach John Beilein, Teske is hitting 50% of his 3s in practice, and it’s nearly impossible not to trust a guy that Beilein has given the green light to, but Teske has not shown himself to be an effective shooter in-game. On Wednesday he went 0/2 from behind the arc (1/10 on the season) and 0/3 on FTs (44% on the season).
The junior doesn’t need 3s or free throws to score, though. He went 3/5 for six points on field goals against UNC because he has great pick and roll chemistry with…
Zavier Simpson, thief
He only had one steal, but it was a dandy. The junior stole the ball right out from under a Tar Heel ball-handler just as UNC was trying to get out on the break, and it led directly to two of Simpson’s five points.
Simpson didn’t show the scoring knack that he did against Villanova (1/3 on drives, 0/1 3s, 1/3 FTs), but the point guard continues to be a terror on defense.
A scoring punch isn’t needed from Simpson because…
Isaiah Livers is still nailing 3s
Ok, he was only 1/1, and it was his only shot of the game, but when called upon (only 12 minutes on Wednesday), Livers is delivering by not taking bad shots, playing solid D, hitting 3s at a 57% clip (leads team except for Brandon Johns who only has one attempt) and hitting FTs at an 80% clip (leads team).
He didn’t spend any time at center in this game, which leads me to believe his time at the 5 against Villanova was matchup-driven and maybe not something we should expect to see too often (or maybe that’s what Beilein wants us to think).
Both of Michigan’s main bench players had efficient games because…
Eli Brooks is still hitting shots
At one point in the first half, Poole had the ball on a fast break, and Brazdeikis was open and hot. Vitale nearly jumped out of his seat advocating for Poole to pass to Iggy, but he was wrong, because Eli Brooks was open for 3. The shot went down and Poole’s decision was vindicated.
3/6 shooting (1/2 on 3s) for seven points in 18 minutes, and the sophomore now sits second behind Livers in 3-point percentage (41%, three or more attempts). I’m backing off my stance that Brooks deserves some of Poole’s minutes since Poole’s found his stoke, but it’s nice to have a backup guard of Brooks’ ability.
What it all means:
It’s obviously early, but this might be a great team. Vitale wasn’t being crazy when he said this squad is better than last year’s, at least based on what we’ve seen so far. Last year’s team got beaten up by North Carolina and this year’s team dished out the abuse. It will be interesting to see how Villanova and the Tar Heels perform the rest of the way, but the Wolverines have taken their two most quality opponents to the woodshed. Bart Torvik’s site has Michigan a favorite in every upcoming regular season game except at Michigan State, and that game only has a 1.3-point spread. Based on its win percentages, Torvik predicts the Wolverines to only lose five games this regular season in a tough Big Ten. That’s one-seed territory (Kansas was a one-seed last season and finished the year with eight losses.).
They’re extremely versatile: They can play big, small, uptempo or half-court. They’re the best defensive team in the country, thanks to Yaklich, and a vintage Beilein offense might be rounding into form. After Wednesday’s 50% performance, Michigan is up to 35% in 3-point percentage. Look out, every other college basketball team (except of course Duke).
But for any fan of Michigan athletics, this game meant even more:
At one point in the second half, Simpson was enduring some jawing from Leaky Black like Michigan fans have absorbed a lot of criticism about the football program in the last five days. Matthews had Simpson’s back, and Matthews and Black had to be warned by a ref. On the very next play, Simpson drove and missed a layup, but Matthews flew in from the wing and slammed it down with so much authority that the ensuing crowd reaction drowned out a whistle for a foul on UNC.
The Michigan faithful appreciated the dunk, but they seemed more thankful to simply be proud once again.
On the next possession Teske volleyball-spiked a ball into the third row, and that was followed by a big-time Matthews rejection. Vitale ran out of superlatives at that point, and breathlessly said, “I love basketball, man!”
So does Michigan, especially right now.
- Beilein really shortened his bench (only eight players played) for the first time this season. It’s not that he didn’t have any opportunities to get other guys in (Michigan led by 22 in the second half.). Rather, it may be a signal that he’s finalized a rotation.
- ESPN’s Seth Greenberg was exactly right about Michigan having trouble defending UNC’s transition game early. It’s hard to simulate in practice, and the best antidote was for the Wolverines to start hitting shots, which they did (57% on the night).
- Michigan relied on fast break points (16) against Villanova but only had seven on Wednesday. Overall, it’s a sign that the Wolverines don’t have to over-rely on defense to create their offense and that a signature Beilein offense is right around the corner.
- Michigan only had a four-point lead at halftime, but it was because UNC was hitting many ill-advised long 2s. The Wolverines keep teams out of the lane and Teske is there to clean anything up. Torvik has Michigan as the best team in the country at 2-point defense.
- The Wolverines play their stifling D without fouling. No Michigan player recorded more than three fouls and they totaled a relatively low 14 for the game.
- Much was made of Michigan’s six first half turnovers considering they only average nine per game, but it was cleaned up in the second half and the Wolverines only finished with seven.
- I know some people hate Dickie V., but to me he’s like John Madden: kind of annoying, but you’ll miss him when he’s no longer on the mic.
- Get ready for a rush of orders, Noah’s Arc.