Brennen Beyer won't forget that moment. Long after Al Borges is just a name from a past that may or may not haunt us as fans, the Canton native who stayed close to home will delight in telling his family and friends about the time he—a defensive end—scored a touchdown; he'll have the football to prove it, and the final score of the game will be largely irrelevant.
These moments have been frustratingly few and far between this season, especially this month; even in the shadow of defeat, however, they provide fleeting flashes of joy, even when we're doing our best to detach emotionally.
When Devin Gardner rolled out, couldn't reach the corner, then threw aside Tanner Miller like a defective Weeble-Wobble before hitting A.J. Williams for his first career reception—in the end zone, no less—my reaction wasn't to slump back onto the couch, muttering something about Al Borges's doomed waggles; it was "F*** YEAH, DEVIN." Maybe not so profound or eloquent, but damn if it didn't feel good.
Then Michigan lost, miserably, and I drove home in a funk. But they had their moments, and so did I.
[After THE JUMP, basketball moments.]
Via Diehard Sport
The first half confirmed everyone's worst fears. Michigan couldn't handle Florida State's size on either end of the floor, repeatedly getting caught in mismatches defensively while failing to get to the rim offensively. The Wolverines trailed 37-27 at the break, and a 6-0 FSU run to start the second half had the game on the verge of blowout territory.
Michigan gradually worked their way out of the 16-point deficit, however, thanks to three things: John Beilein's defensive adjustments, Mitch McGary rounding into form, and Nik Stauskas leaving no doubt regarding the identity of this team's go-to scorer.
It started defensively, as Michigan switched from playing exclusively man-to-man in the first half—allowing FSU to exploit their significant size advantage—to a brief dalliance with the 2-3 and a full-blown love affair with the 1-3-1, which led to seven second-half turnovers and got the offense going in transition. It also allowed Caris LeVert, who was attacked repeatedly on the interior in the first half, to become a disruptive force at the top of the zone; he was credited with two steals and generally wreaked havoc defensively.
McGary finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds (7 offensive) with three assists and two blocks, and aside from some trouble finishing at the basket (6/15 from the field) he looked like the McGary of last season's NCAA tournament, crashing the boards with aplomb, affecting shots at the rim, and even leading the fast break. He even tallied an assist with a behind-the-back pass in transition that bounced twice before reaching Stauskas, who calmly sunk a three to cut the Seminoles lead to six; naturally, the fast break opportunity came off a McGary steal.
Then there was Stauskas, who finished with a career-high 26 points despite shooting just 7/16 (3/8 3-pt) from the field. After forcing some questionable perimeter shots in the first half, Stauskas found his rhythm in the latter stanza by repeatedly attacking the basket and taking contact—he finished 9/12 from the line. When Michigan found themselves down by two with 11 seconds to play in regulation, John Beilein entrusted Stauskas to make a play, and his trust was rewarded: Stauskas declined a high ball screen from McGary when he saw an opening, drove hard to the baseline, and finished with a layup to send the game to overtime.
Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III, who had a relatively quiet game otherwise, led the way in the overtime period. Stauskas buried a three and added four points from the charity stripe, while Robinson sunk two pull-up jumpers to account for 11 of Michigan's 13 points in the extra period. The Wolverines had to sweat out a desperation heave after Derrick Walton missed two free throws with a chance to ice the game; while FSU's prayer hit the backboard (ack!) it harmlessly bounced well wide of the rim.
The concerns brought forth in the first half still stand, of course; Michigan has traditionally had trouble with very big teams, and Florida State was no exception. The fact that they adjusted so well in the middle of the game this early in the season, however, cannot be ignored; it's entirely possible that the Wolverines just stumbled upon their ideal defense going forward. McGary is doing better than anyone could've reasonably expected while playing his way into shape, Stauskas has taken the mantle as the team's go-to scorer, and a young team showed plenty of fight when they could've simply folded. We may look back at the second half as a critical turning point en route to another special season.
First, however, Michigan must get past Charlotte on Sunday at 6:30 EST to take home the Puerto Rico Tipoff title.
South Carolina State tried trapping Michigan at halfcourt, packing the paint, and daring Michigan to knock down outside shots.
Challenge accepted. Caris LeVert hit his first five three-point attempts and finished with a career-high 24 points to lead the way for Michigan, while Nik Stauskas, often left all alone in his favorite corner, finished with 23 points and shot 5/6 from beyond the arc. Michigan's 15 made threes (on 28 attempts) came up one short of the school record as the Wolverines cruised from start to finish—they tallied assists on 19 of their 31 made shots, and just four of those came from the team's two point guards.
LeVert's stellar outing wasn't limited to his shooting; he added four rebounds, three assists, a steal, and two blocks while playing totally in control—he didn't record a turnover. Even when accounting for the opponent, he looked like a star in the making, building on his strong play in the two exhibitions and opener against UMass Lowell. While the photo above is representative of SCSU's perimeter, um, defense, LeVert created his shots in a variety of ways, including knocking down a couple threes off the dribble.
While Glenn Robinson III struggled from the field (4/12), he nearly brought down the house on two different dunk attempts that ended in fouls, and a 4/5 night from the charity stripe gave him 13 points to go along with nine rebounds and three steals; even when his shot wasn't falling, he was active on both ends. That said, he looks like the #3 option on this team, and that's without the presence of Mitch McGary; this isn't a bad thing as long as Stauskas and LeVert keep up their current level of play, but if either fall off the questions remain about GRIII's ability to create his own offense.
Jon Horford, meanwhile, has locked down the starting center spot in McGary's absence. In 24 minutes, he finished with nine points (4/8 FG) and 15 rebounds (5 offensive), and his lone block belied his ability to affect shots at the rim—SCSU shot just 15/45 from inside the arc and Horford played a big part in that. Jordan Morgan had four points, six rebounds (one off.), and two blocks of his own in 15 minutes of action; the team functioned much better on both sides of the court with Horford, however, and there's no question which player brings more from an athletic standpoint.
The freshmen had their ups and downs in this game. Derrick Walton had 12 points (5/10 FG) and an assist while creating a couple putback opportunities with aggressive takes to the hoop; he also got caught leaving his feet a couple times on defense and turned the ball over three times. Zak Irvin played solid positional defense but couldn't get his shot to fall, missing a couple open threes from the corner early and finishing with five points on 2/7 shooting. Spike Albrecht added three assists in 14 minutes and didn't record a stat otherwise; Max Bielfeldt contributed a late banked-in three.
Most importantly, the rotation sans-McGary has begun to take shape. Once again, the starters were Walton-LeVert-Stauskas-Robinson-Horford; Irvin was the first man off the bench when Robinson picked up an early foul. Albrecht and Morgan were the next two off the bench, coming in after the first media timeout. Nobody else saw the floor until Bielfeldt came in with just over four minutes remaining, quickly followed by the four walk-ons—if Bielfeldt is holding on to a spot in the rotation, it's by a thread.
It's early and Michigan hasn't played a team capable of posing a real threat; so far, however, it looks like the team's two hyped-up lottery picks may be the #3 and #4 offensive options, and that's quite a remarkable development.
First, the most important thing:
Michigan raised their 2013 Final Four banner today, and if I can say so myself it looks pretty damn good up there. Josh Bartelstein, Corey Person, and a late-arriving Eso Akunne were in attendance to receive their rings; Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. had some pressing business matters to attend to, I'm told. (Burke's parents were here, though, and got a large ovation when shown on the jumbotron.)
Nothing that could happen against UMass Lowell, a Division I newcomer, was going to top that. For the first 20 minutes, however, Michigan looked like they were trying their best overshadow the ceremony in the worst way possible. From the opening possession, during which Jon Horford missed a what-are-you-doing three early in the shot clock, to the final first half possession, when Horford ignored a wide-open Glenn Robinson III on a backcut and jacked up a long two, the Wolverines looked totally flat offensively. (This makes it seem like it was all Horford's fault; it was very much a team effort.)
The Crisler Center crowd could only look on in shock as the Wolverines went into the tunnel tied 23-23 at halftime. Michigan hit just 6/23 field goals (1/9 threes) and 10/15 free throws while turning the ball over five times to just two assists. While the team looked good defensively, they played disjointed basketball on the other end, never able to get much momentum going. Even when they put in points, it wasn't necessarily pretty; Robinson scored six of his ten first-half points from the free-throw line, Stauskas four of his seven, mostly on forced dribble-drives that ended in hacks.
In the second half, it was a totally different story. The Wolverines opened the second stanza on a 21-2 run that took nearly 11 minutes; from there, they cruised to victory, again with a big push on the defensive end—an aggressive Michigan D forced ten second-half turnovers while the offense coughed it up just twice.
Caris LeVert (above, Fuller) led the way with 17 points, 11 coming in the second half, on 6/11 shooting—he hit all five of his second-half attempts—while also chipping in five rebounds, a nifty assist on a pick-and-roll with Horford, and two steals. LeVert's assist total belied his impressive passing, as Michigan bungled good looks set up by his passes on multiple occasions in the first half. He once again worked his way into the lane with regularity and hit a couple nice pull-up jumpers—if that shot is consistently falling this season, he'll be a very dangerous player.
Robinson finished with a workmanlike 15 points (4/8 FG, 7/10 FT), seven boards, four assists, and three steals. While his on-and-off aggression didn't result in many made baskets, it got him to the line frequently, and his teammates missed a few opportunities to hit him on backdoor cuts that should've resulted in thunderous dunks.
Derrick Walton once again started at point guard, and while he didn't look to create his own offense too much (6 points, 1/4 FG, 4/4 FT), he dished out four assists and was a disruptive defensive force, tallying four steals in addition to forcing a jump ball—he knew the right times to get aggressive and go for the ball, and it paid off handsomely. Fellow freshman Zak Irvin also played a big part in Michgian's second-half run, scoring all of his ten points (1/3 2P, 2/4 3P, 2/3 FT) in the final 12 minutes of play.
Nik Stauskas didn't have his best shooting night, going 1/5 from the field, but he grinded out nine points due to his willingness to drive and absorb contact—he ended up 6/8 from the line and played with the right amount of aggressiveness. While Horford also had a hard time putting the ball in the hoop (5 points, 2/8 FG), he still looked like the team's best center option without Mitch McGary, hauling in 12 rebounds (5 offensive), blocking a shot, and generally making life difficult for Lowell players trying to get clean looks in the lane.
Jordan Morgan, meanwhile, played just 12 minutes, putting up two points and three rebounds but also drawing two fouls—the change in the way charges are being called is a major negative for his defensive style if early returns hold. Max Bielfeldt fared worse, making a four-minute cameo as a center in the first half that included this sequence: missed layup followed immediately by a turnover, then a late rotation on the other end resulting in an easy bucket.
While it took a full half to gel, Michigan eventually got their act together offensively, and it was nice to see the defense carry the day even against an overmatched opponent—Lowell finished with just four fast-break points and rebounded only ten of their 35 missed field goals while yakking up 15 total turnovers. Let's go ahead and chalk up the first half performance to post-banner malaise and never speak of it again.
2013-14 Preview Coverage
Media Day Wrap: Beilein transcript + interviews with Horford, Morgan, Walton, GRIII
Position Previews: Bigs, Wings, Point Guards
Preview Podcast: With special guest John Gasaway
A Whole Damn Book: A whole damn book
Tonight's Game Info
What: Michigan vs. UMass-Lowell
Where: Crisler Center, Ann Arbor, Michigan
When: 7pm, Friday (Banner raising ceremony at 6:40)
Line: Michigan -25 (KenPom)
TV: Big Ten Digital Network (subcription required)/MGoBlueTV (ditto)
Radio: 950 AM (Detroit), 102.9 FM (Ann Arbor), Sirius Channel 92, MGoBlue stream
UMass-Lowell is making their Division I debut after finishing 15-13 (10-12) as a member of the Northeast-10 (Division II) last year. A full-blown game preview is rather unnecessary.
"If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts he shall end in certainties." — Sir Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning
As Michigan opens its season tonight against UMass-Lowell, I'm certain of two things about this team: they're raising a Final Four banner tonight, and they will be good.
The first is indisputable fact, not to mention a significant reason why it's easy to state the second: John Beilein's squad returns eight players (three starters, four more rotation guys) from a team that came within a half of requiring a bigger, fancier banner. Among those are two players garnering preseason All-American consideration, arguably the best shooter in America, a backup point guard who dropped 17 points in the first half of the title game, two experienced big men, and a sophomore oozing so much potential that he forced his way onto the court last year despite appearing malnourished.
On top of that, Michigan boasts one of the best coaching staffs in the country and bring in two top-flight recruits who will contribute immediately, one of whom (PG Derrick Walton) has already secured a starting role. They will be good, even without Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway.
How good depends on a number of factors, however, and for every certainty there is an equal and opposite uncertainty.
Certainty: Mitch McGary is one of the most skilled, impactful centers in college basketball.
Uncertainty: When will he be able to return from his back "condition", and will it hamper him once he returns? (Also: how much do we weigh his tournament run versus his regular-season output?)
Certainty: Glenn Robinson III is an incredible athlete who had an exceptionally efficient freshman season.
Uncertainty: Can Robinson create his own shot, and can he stay so efficient with a bigger role?
Certainty: Beilein will try to play more two-big lineups this year.
Uncertainty: Will this work, especially with all the practice time McGary has missed? With all the talent on the wings, is it even worth trying?
Certainty: Caris LeVert is getting massive practice hype for the second straight year and looks like a potential breakout star as a shooting guard and part-time point.
Uncertainty: Will his practice/exhibition exploits translate to actual production against real opponents this year?
Certainty: Nik Stauskas is a great shooter; also: Not Just A Shooter.
Uncertainty: Can his lethal efficiency as a three-point shooter and pick-and-roll ballhandler continue when he's the team's first or second scoring option?
Certainty: Michigan is starting an extremely talented freshman point guard.
Uncertainty: Michigan is starting an extremely talented freshman point guard.
The list goes on and on*, and I'm okay with this. The uncertainty surrounding the football team this year has largely stemmed from "can this non-functional unit become functional"-type questions. The uncertainty surrounding the basketball team, on the other hand, is more of the "can this good thing become great" variety.
If the pieces all fall into place, Michigan is a national title contender once again. If they don't, this is still a team capable of winning the Big Ten (so long as Michigan State doesn't go full juggernaut, at least), and barring a rash of injuries they'll be a fun team to watch. None of us have any idea what's going to happen; it's still all but guaranteed to be more rewarding than watching this year's football team. Sit back and enjoy Michigan's status as one of the nation's elite programs, one that reloads instead of rebuilds, and savor that banner. We'll worry about certainties another time.
*Will the team's added functional size and experience on the wings equal better defensive performance, for example.
Previously: Preview MGoPodcast with John Gasaway, Media Day Wrap, Bigs, Wings (Also, BUY HTTV BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE. There's more great preview content in there than I can possibly cover in a sequence of blog posts.)
With the bigs and wings already covered, that leaves just the point guards to preview. Michigan has two very good options here, plus a third (Caris LeVert) that can be used situationally. Will their powers combined equal that of Trey Burke? Well, no, that's simply unreasonable. Will they still be pretty darn good? This blog says yes.
This looks pleasantly familiar.
Measurables: 6'1", 185
Recruiting Rankings: 247Composite #10 PG, #45 overall
The 2013 Michigan Gatorate Player of the Year winner and Mr. Basketball finalist officially took up the now-hallowed mantle of Michigan Starting Point Guard this week, when John Beilein gave Walton the nod over Spike Albrecht in the exhibition finale against Wayne State. The freshman ranked as high as #30 overall (and no lower than #67) depending on your recruiting site of preference. There were a few common threads in the various scouting reports on him:
- First and foremost, he's a pass-first point guard that keeps everyone involved. Scout hailed him as a "true point guard" whose court vision makes his teammates better. ESPN called him a "true point guard [that] can control the game" in their evaluation. Rivals didn't quite get the memo, calling him "one of 2013's top pure point men," after an AAU tournament last May ($). Whether true or pure, guard or man, Walton is certainly a natural fit at the one, and he'll look to distribute more than his predecessor.
- Walton can score, especially at the perimeter. Scout's report lists three-point range as a positive. ESPN also discusses his outside shooting in a good light and adds that he's got a solid mid-range game. The Rivals article cited above notes his ability to score from the outside or around the basket. When he decides it's time to score, Walton is capable, though it's unfair to compare him to Trey Burke in this regard. (That goes for just about everything, actually.) Early returns here are positive: Walton hit 3 of 7 three-pont attempts in the two exhibition games and looked very confident in his shot; yes, I'll acknowledge that's a tiny sample size.
- At the very least, Walton is going to give plenty of effort on defense, and while Scout lists his size and defensive ability in the "areas for improvement" section, that sentiment isn't echoed elsewhere. ESPN loves his toughness and competitive drive on both ends of the floor. Rivals cites his on-ball defense as a major factor in his lofty ranking. In the two exhibition games, Walton has two Burke-esque halfcourt steals and looks like he's well ahead of where Burke was defensively at this early stage.
There's also his leadership; while most AAU squads are disjointed at best, Walton's Michigan Mustangs won a major tournament in Las Vegas thanks to taking on the identity of their point guard, per Rivals's Eric Bossi ($):
It's only fitting that the Michigan Mustangs took home the 17 and under crown at the Adidas Super 64. ... Taking their cue from tough-as-nails floor general and tournament MVP Derrick Walton, the entire Mustangs team played with toughness, togetherness and a unified purpose. Frankly, there weren't enough teams in Las Vegas -- or any of our other stops between April and July -- that played with the same purpose as the Mustangs so it's good to see their efforts result in a big tournament victory.
Bossi's evaluation of Walton's play in that tournament was glowing, to say the least ($):
Setting the tone for the Mustangs was four-star point guard Derrick Walton. The Michigan bound guard was an absolute stud on both ends of the floor. He went right at defenders' chests on drives, dimed up his teammates with pinpoint passes, defended at a high level and generally played with a level of confidence that allowed him to do whatever he wanted to do.
One strength of Walton's that's become immediately apparent is his ability to push the pace and control the tempo of the game; he's always looking to run when he gets an outlet pass (or a defensive rebound—he had seven combined in the two exhibitions) and that resulted in a lot of easy transition buckets for Michigan. When McGary—and his Unseldian outlets—returns to the court, the fast break could become one of Michigan's primary offensive weapons.
Golden Age Rap Song That Describes His Game/Impact: "For My Dogs" — DMX
And I'm gonna be the one behind just to keep you on your toes
I be your extra eyes and hold you down around your foes
I be your extra gun you need me let me know
For my dogs I be the first to cock it back and let it go
Walton isn't going to be the first option on this team; he's going to let his teammates know he's got their back, however—whether that comes in the form of assists, timely buckets, or giving his all on defense.
The Bottom Line: Walton is a freshman point guard, and that means he's going to make the occasional mistake on both ends of the court. The difference between Walton and other point guards of recent vintage is that there are other options—not only is Spike Albrecht a viable starter on a solid team, Caris LeVert is quickly emerging as a serious drive-and-kick threat playing the point in bigger lineups. Walton is the starter and should be for the duration; on this team, that means he's going to be pretty good, even if he's the fourth or fifth option on the court whose primary job is to distribute—think Yogi Ferrell on last year's Indiana team, except hopefully with a more consistent outside shot.
[Hit THE JUMP for SPIKE.]