Five Reasons Why Michigan is For Real

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 15th, 2018

After losing three of its top four scorers from last year’s Sweet Sixteen team — including point guard Derrick Walton, Jr. — Michigan was a mystery heading into this season. An NCAA tournament bid seemed likely but debatable; a Big Ten title seemed out of the question. After upsetting Michigan State in East Lansing on Saturday and nearly toppling Purdue earlier in the week, though, expectations have changed. Now 15-4 (4-2 Big Ten) with wins over the Spartans, Texas and UCLA, Michigan — ranked higher in KenPom now than it finished last season — is in position to compete for a conference championship and a favorable seed on Selection Sunday. The Wolverines have come a long way fast, and here’s why they’re legit.

Moritz Wagner shredded the Spartans on Saturday. (UM Hoops)

  • They play defense. Michigan is playing some of its best defense in years, ranking 15th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, which — if the season ended today — would be the second-best ever under head coach John Beilein. His stingiest team wound up as the 2013 National Runner-Up. Against the Spartans over the weekend, the Wolverines fought through ball screens, rotated consistently and limited Michigan State’s looks from the three-point line (especially Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford, who attempted just three triples). Down low, the Michigan big men prevented Nick Ward (four points) from catching the ball in the deep post, where he’s been nearly unstoppable this season. Perhaps most importantly, Beilein’s group limited transition buckets and forced the Spartans to work hard in the half-court. Even while Beilein’s offense is somewhat less efficient this season, the Wolverines’ improvement on the defensive end could ultimately make them more complete.
  • They finally found a point guard. If there was any question left as to who had won Michigan’s point guard battle, it was put to rest this week. After averaging just 18 minutes per game prior to January 2, Zavier Simpson saw 30-plus minutes of action for the fourth straight game on Saturday, scoring 16 points and dishing out five assists in the win over Michigan State. In Michigan’s near-miss against Purdue on Tuesday, the sophomore scored 15 points and secured a career-high six rebounds. In both games, Beilein’s offense was firing on all cylinders. “Zavier Simpson has been key for us,” the coach said on Saturday. “He’s been able to make plays. Especially in the second half.“ Not only is Simpson playing his best basketball of the season, but he’s doing so against the best teams in the conference — if not the country. What began as a dead-even three-man race between Simpson, Ohio transfer Jaaron Simmons and freshman Eli Brooks has now become Simpson’s job to lose. And Michigan’s the better for it.

  • The bench is stepping up. Michigan ranked 335th nationally in bench minutes last season (23.2%) with a rotation that essentially maxed out at seven deep. This year, the Wolverines’ rank 151st (33.3%) in that department, with freshmen Jordan Poole and Isaiah Livers along with sophomore Jon Teske all playing critical minutes. Teske’s 7’1″ frame gives Beilein another body to throw at large frontcourts like Purdue and Michigan State. Poole, an outstanding shooter, is capable of providing a scoring spark, like his 19-point effort (5-of-10 3FG) against Indiana in December. Livers, a versatile forward who’s averaging 10.3 PPG in January, earned his first career start over Duncan Robinson on Saturday. Whether it’s been Poole’s effort against the Hoosiers, Livers’ spark against Illinois (12 points in 18 minutes), or Teske’s offensive rebounding prowess, Michigan has benefited greatly from its bench.
  • They can get to the rim. The three-point shot will always be Michigan’s bread and butter under Beilein, but the Wolverines are slightly less reliant on the long ball this season. Perhaps that’s because they have more players capable of finishing at the rim — namely, Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews. The 6’6″ wing may be Michigan’s most athletic finisher since Caris LeVert, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Glenn Robinson III left town, helping him lead the team in scoring (15.2 PPG) despite ranking fourth on the team in three-point attempts. Alongside Wagner and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Matthews helps add another level of dynamism to Beilein’s offense, especially when they’re utilizing ball-screens as effectively as they did against Michigan State on Saturday. Despite making only six triples, Michigan still scored 1.17 points per possession against one of the nation’s top defenses.
  • Moritz Wagner is exceptional. Matthews may lead Michigan in scoring this season, but Wagner is unquestionably its best player. His numbers on Saturday — 27 points on 8-for-13 shooting — don’t quite capture just how dominate the 6’10” German was against the Spartans. Seemingly every time Michigan State went on a mini-run, Wagner would knock down a clutch three-pointer and hush the crowd. His baseline spin-moves proved unstoppable when he got the ball one-on-one near the basket. The Spartans couldn’t stop him working off of high ball screens, and his defense against Ward and company was excellent. His competitiveness was evident throughout. “They slap the floor and everybody goes wild and you make a shot and they’re quiet again; that was a lot of fun,” Wagner said afterward. When the all-Big Ten forward plays like he did on Saturday, Michigan is nearly impossible to beat.
Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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