By now, you’ve heard about Michigan basketball’s 27-point win over Villanova in Philly, but let’s look a little closer at what made the Wolverines successful, and what Michigan hoops fans might be able to expect the rest of the season.
DISCLAIMER: Yes, like everything good and fun in this world, this post needs to start out with disclaimer. It’s one game in November. We have no idea what Villanova will be, come March, although I expect they’re a tournament team: Jay Wright is probably the best coach in the country other than John Beilein, and they’ve won two National Championships in the last three seasons. They lost a lot of talent off of last year’s squad, but they should be in the “reload not rebuild” phase of a college basketball dynasty. That said, they shot themselves in the foot plenty of times Wednesday night.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, the Wolverines sliced through the Wildcats like hot knives through butter. At a break with 17:33 left in the second half, it felt like the white flag was already being waved, and Raftery said as much. Bart Torvik’s site gave Michigan a 97.6% chance to win at that point. The play after that took on a garbage time feel. The starters stayed out until about three minutes left, but feet were off the collective gas pedal. Because of that, I think looking at the first half stats is going to be more instructive than looking at the full-game box score, and I rely on them as much as I can.
Defense to offense
Michigan’s defense is elite, and everyone should have known it would be. The bigger question was how the Wolverines would consistently generate offense. Well, 26 points (36% of Michigan’s total scoring) came off turnovers. 18 points on the fast break. The Wolverines were running, which reminds me…
Isaiah Livers is your nominal backup center
The sophomore forward spent significant time at the 5, especially in the first half, and it allowed Michigan to push the pace. It was in the last 10 minutes or so of the first half when the Wolverines really took control. At that point, a Villanova comeback was plausible, but by the time the first half ended, Michigan had a 96% chance to win, and Livers was a big part of it. His defense (on the perimeter and inside) and 3-point shooting (2/2 in the game, all in that time at center) helped put the game out of reach. Livers gives the Wolverines a chance to play 5-out, like they did with Moritz Wagner last season. And as long as junior center Jon Teske is missing 3s (0/1 this game), the 5-out center job is Livers’s.
Positionless basketball is all the rage right now, and it could have been a matchup thing, but it’s definitely worth watching as the season goes on.
One of the reasons the Wolverines are able to put Livers at the 5 is because…
Charles Matthews is the best rim-defender in the game (non-center division)
The redshirt junior wing led the team with three blocks, using his trademark athleticism (Kentucky transfer, remember?) to terrorize Villanova drivers. Matthews is critical to Michigan’s defense at the rim if Teske’s off the floor. Of course, Matthews’s perimeter defense was excellent as always.
And did you see him steal that inbound pass? I’m guessing that’s the last time that happens to the Wildcats this year, and I’m also guessing Matthews gets the Cagey Veteran (TM) tag from virtually every commentator this season. (BTW Gus Johnson, Michigan has good luck with folks named Charles, so can you refrain from calling him “Charlie?)
On the offensive side, Matthews is still wrecking backboards and missing 3s (0/2 first half, 0/4 game), but he showed a very Zak Irvin-esque midrange skillset, knocking down several long 2s. He was a perfect 7/7 in the first half inside the arc. Whether or not he should continue taking those shots is an open debate, but it’s a nice option in case the Wolverines lose an offensive contributor to injury at some point. 5/7 on free throws is a good indicator that Matthews’s midrange game is sustainable, and that maybe he cleaned up those FT shooting issues from last season.
Michigan has the luxury of not over-relying on offense from Matthews because…
Ignas Brazdeikis is the late-clock option
Matthews, junior point guard Zavier Simpson and sophomore wing Jordan Poole are possibilities as well, but Brazdeikis was wonderful with the ball in his hands Wednesday night. The Lithuanian showed that the ambidextrous talk was legit, finishing with either hand, and from the most difficult of angles around the rim. He went 3/4 in the first half, missed his only 3-point attempt and was 4/4 on free throws, important for a guy who will get to the rim a lot and for a dismal free throw shooting team.
But Brazdeikis was just as impressive without the ball in his hands. He generally stayed in front of his man on defense and drew a charge. His hops showed on a vicious tip-dunk. He was also Michigan’s leading rebounder in the first half, sucking up five with two of them being the offensive variety.
Brazdeikis is the perfect offensive complement to…
Zavier Simpson, short, angry man.
Simpson was his usual, pesky self, registering three steals in the first half, but he also showed great passing skills (3/1 assist to turnover ration in first half). He pretty much got to the hoop at will, too. He’s a little limited once he gets there because of his height (please don’t tell him I said that), but if opposing rim-defenders are pulled away from the basket (that’ll happen more often with Livers at the 5) he can usually get up a quality attempt.
Simpson’s six first half points were useful because…
Jordan Poole was a little off
In the first half, 2/6 field goals, 1-4 3s, no FT attempts, no rebounds, one assist and one foul.
Poole did have that great save-tiptoe-boxout in the second half, but his overall performance had me asking…
Should Eli Brooks get more playing time?
In six minutes in the first half, the sophomore hit his only 3-point attempt, got a rebound, an assist and a block. I don’t think he gives up much defensively to Poole, except a little size. The hope is that Poole’s poor shooting performance was just a blip (it happens), but if he keeps missing shots, Brooks should be in line for a few of his minutes. It would be hard to justify Brooks taking any of Simpson’s time.
- Teske had a really quiet night. He only played nine minutes in the first half to Livers’s 15. His defense was solid, per usual, even when he was drawn away from the basket, but he didn’t score at all. It could be a quirk of this specific matchup, but it’s definitely something to watch going forward.
- Freshman forward/center Brandon Johns didn’t do much in four minutes, and it looks like he’s got some learning to do. Maybe unwrap him in February and see where he’s at.
- Freshman wing Adrien Nunez got victimized on D a couple times in three minutes. Back to the lab. Dust him off in 2019 and see where he’s at.
- Freshman point guard David DeJulius looked good. The Detroit product hit 1/2 3s and a free throw for four points in three minutes. The Wolverines are kind of loaded at guard (see Simpson and Brooks sections), but I wouldn’t be surprised to see DeJulius get more playing time as November turns into December.
- Freshman center Colin Castleton also looked good. He scored on some nifty work down low and gobbled up three rebounds in three minutes. He could push redshirt sophomore Austin Davis for the true-center backup minutes.
- It doesn’t bother me that the reffing crew wanted to take a closer look at the Simpson/Cosby-Roundtree kerfuffle in the second half, but a six-minute delay in a 30-point ballgame is egregious. After three minutes, just make a call and move on. These kinds of delays kill the viewing experience and this whole darn industry is driven by TV viewers, many of which were probably changing the channel somewhere around minute four.
- Michigan went 12/19 (63%) on free throws. Expect them to lose a game because of free throw shooting sometime this season. It never really happened last year, but that was probably due to some luck.