Good Week for Michigan Hoops (Which Could’ve Been Even Better)

This past week the Michigan Wolverines basketball team played three games. Two of them came against top five ranked programs. They took on the Purdue Boilermakers at home in the Crisler Center and traveled to East Lansing to take on MSU. U of M then came back home to take on Maryland. They went 2-1 in those games and had a great chance to have gone 3-0.

The Purdue game was a good test for this Wolverine squad as they were hosting the number five ranked team in the country and their fantastic big man Isaac Haas. It was also their second game against a ranked opponent this season after losing to the North Carolina Tar Heels in late November.

It was a hard-fought game with Purdue leading throughout the night and by as many as 14 points early in the first half. But U of M clawed their way back and took a 64-61 lead with just under five minutes to go in the second half. Ultimately, they ended up losing 70-69 and fell to 3-2 in Big Ten play.

Michigan then traveled to the Breslin Center to take on the fourth-ranked Spartans. Michigan State, which was coming off a blowout loss to Ohio State and a close overtime win over Rutgers, had to be fired up to play their arch rivals, especially after losing to them 86-57 the last time they met.

But that was not the case. Michigan State held a slim 37-34 lead at the break but it was Michigan who came out to play in the second half and arrived back home in Ann Arbor with a 82-72 win over their in-state rival and a 4-2 record in conference play.

The Maryland game was also a hard-fought battle with the Terps leading by as many as 14 in the first half but the Wolverines coming out victorious 68-67. They also ran their Big Ten record to 5-2, good for third in the conference. It probably shouldn’t have come down to that as Michigan led by ten with just under six minutes to go, but a win is a win regardless of how you get it.

Over the course of these three games, the Wolverines showed plenty of things to be happy about moving forward, but there was also some signs for concern as well.

The biggest positive over this past week was the play of junior big man Moritz Wagner. While his game against Purdue wasn’t his best (11 points on 5-11 shooting and 6 rebounds), he showed up against the Spartans.

He scored a career high 27 points and grabbed four boards. He also shot 8-8 from the free throw line which is a good sign as he came into the game shooting just 65% from the charity stripe.

He also came to play against Maryland. He racked up a double-double with 18 points and 11 rebounds and was a big spark for his team in the second half. And while many will still say he is inconsistent, which is fairly true, he showed he has tremendous talent and can show up in the biggest of games.

Another positive for this team over the past three games was the play of their underclassmen. Zavier Simpson set a career high in points scored with 15 against Purdue and bested himself again with 16 against MSU. And while his game against the Terrapins wasn’t anything to write home about with five points, he still dished out five assists too.

Isaiah Livers scored 10, 6 and 7 points respectively in the three games and has provided John Beilein a nice option over the struggling senior Duncan Robinson. He even made the beautiful half-court pass to Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman that set up the game winning free throws against the Terps.

Even lesser used young bucks like Jordan Poole, Eli Brooks and Jon Teske have held their own. Those three have come in and answered the call when they give starters like Wagner and Simpson a break.

Poole may have even forced his way into more playing time with his performance against Maryland. He scored 11 points on 4-5 shooting in 13 minutes and was the only other Wolverine besides Wagner to score in double figures. He also went 3-3 from beyond the arc in a two-minute stretch which saw Michigan go from being down seven to up by four.

The biggest negative takeaway from this past week of games has been the play of the two seniors who see playing time in Abdur-Rahkman and Robinson. MAAR shot 8-29 from the field and 3-10 from the 3-point line for a combined 28 points over the three games.

Robinson shot 4-11 from the field and 3-7 from beyond the arc for a total of 13 points. He was also replaced by Livers in the starting lineup for the MSU game.

And while Abdur-Rahkman hit the two clutch free throws to beat Maryland and became the 52nd Wolverine to score 1,000 points in his career (which is an awesome feat), he still needs to play better as the most tested veteran on this budding team.

Another negative from these past three games has been the free-throw shooting. They haven’t been good all year as their team percentage has hovered in the low to mid 60s all year and the Purdue game was no different. They shot 7-11 (63%) and lost by a point. Against Michigan State they actually shot 80% (28-35), but started off 20-20, and went 8-15 down the final stretch of the game when they mattered the most which gave MSU life. The Maryland game wasn’t good either with the team shooting 7-12 (58%) and Zavier Simpson missing two near the end of the game, which almost cost his team a win.

But even with those negatives, this Michigan team proved they can play with anybody in the country. Purdue is no joke and is currently ranked behind only Villanova and Virginia in the latest AP poll. Michigan State is still a good team with the talent to make some noise come March. Maryland is no slouch either and should end up in the top half of the conference.

U of M also entered the AP Top-25 for the first time this season with a number 23 ranking after their victory against MSU. And while they almost lost it right after they earned it with the nail-biter against Maryland, they should be a mainstay in the rankings for the rest of the season.

Coach Beilein always has his teams prepared as the season goes on and this team is no different. Michigan fans should be excited for the rest of this season, especially after this past week.

The Wolverines are a very young team as they rely on five underclassmen to perform and contribute. So while that could be a negative, I think it will be a positive, as they are only getting better. This past week clearly proved that.

A 2-1 record in your past three games may not be what many teams would want to write home about but, with the three teams they played and how they played, Michigan should be excited for what is yet to come.

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Michigan Basketball: Early Season Recap

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.