Through the first 12 games of the 2017-2018 college basketball season, the Michigan Wolverines are off to a 9-3 start. While this may seem like a solid start for coach John Beilein’s young Wolverines in a rebuilding year after losing standouts Derrick Walton, Jr., Zak Irvin and D.J. Wilson from last year’s group, they should be off to an even better start.
Out of their three losses so far, the only game they should’ve lost was at North Carolina. They were flat-out outplayed and outmatched against the Tar Heels, who are currently one of the best teams in the country with a 9-1 record and a #7 ranking.
Even though they should’ve won this game, I’ll even throw out the loss against the LSU Tigers (who are sitting at 6-2 at the moment and will most likely be a middle of the pack team in the SEC) in part because it was played in the Maui Invitational and anything can happen in a tournament setting.
The biggest, and most painful, game so far in this young season, is the loss against the Ohio State Buckeyes. Michigan had OSU on the ropes and were up 20 points late in the first half before allowing the Buckeyes to go on a 26-3 run and ultimately losing 71-62. This one hurts not only because it was a game that Michigan should have won, but it was against a rival, a fellow Big Ten opponent and a win would’ve allowed them to start off conference play with a 2-0 record. Instead, they sit at 1-1.
But after that loss, Michigan rallied and picked up two wins against quality opponents. They beat the UCLA Bruins at the Crisler Center after trailing by as many as 15 points in the second half. Beilein and his team then went on the road to Texas and beat the Longhorns and talented freshman Mo Bamba, who is averaging both double-digit points and rebounds through 8 games this season.
Michigan’s next three games come against Detroit Mercy, Alabama A&M, and Jacksonville University. If they beat these teams like expected, they should head into the new year and Big Ten play with a 12-3 overall record and they will sit 1-1 in conference play as well. They then end their regular season with 16 straight against conference foes.
The Big Ten is a very talented conference this year with a legitimate national title contender in Michigan State and other high quality teams in Minnesota and Purdue. The rest of the Big Ten teams are no scrubs either and the Wolverines will have their work cut out for them if they want to be successful in conference play.
I believe Michigan will have to work on three things during their next three games to get on track once Big Ten play starts in January.
The first key is improvement from the free-throw line. As a team, they are shooting a meager 63.5% from the charity stripe. While many players can improve, they need their best players (Moe Wagner and Charles Matthews) to get better in this area. While both are having solid years in other aspects of their game, Wagner is shooting an ok 65% while Matthews, the transfer from Kentucky, is shooting an awful 49%. Both of these players need to do better from the line and this will help the team out because both of their scoring averages will go up if they shoot better free-throw percentages.
The next key for this team to be ready for Big Ten play is that coach Beilein has to figure out his point guard situation. Sophomore Zavier Simpson and freshmen Eli Brooks and Jordan Poole have all had their opportunities to run this offense at one point or another. Poole is the best scorer of the bunch but Simpson and Brooks are better distributors of the basketball. My guess is that Simpson, the eldest of the trio, and one that learned under the four-year veteran Walton last year, will eventually take over the reins and take control of this team at the point guard position. But Poole and Brooks have talent and will still contribute to the team regardless.
The third thing that I think this Michigan team needs to do in order to succeed is to rely on, and get better play from, their senior leaders. Duncan Robinson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman are the two fourth-year players who play meaningful minutes for this squad. Both are great shooters (both are shooting over 92% from the free-throw line) and are usually good shooters from beyond the arc as well but are shooting poorly from the field and on their three-point attempts. Both Robinson and Abdur-Rahkman are shooting under 35% from deep and under 40% overall. These two are both talented basketball players and have shown flashes of greatness before and this youthful U of M team will need some veteran leadership down the stretch if they want to have a successful season.
I believe this team has the talent, and coaching, to be the second or third best team (behind MSU of course) in a powerful Big Ten conference. They just need to come together and rely on one another to play to their fullest capabilities.
While they haven’t played the greatest so far in this young season, they haven’t played bad either and I think their best basketball is ahead of them. It should be a fun and exciting rest of the season for Michigan basketball.