"The devil's in the details," said John Beilein after the game, describing the difficulty of winning against good teams.
For 38 minutes, Michigan did enough of the little things to hold a lead against top-ranked Arizona. They shot the ball well, played tough defense on the interior, and didn't allow an athletic Wildcats squad to get into transition at all. Throughout the game, however, they couldn't keep Arizona from owning the offensive boards, and once they started converting putback opportunities down the stretch the Wolverines couldn't hold on—after scoring just two points off nine first-half offensive rebounds, the Wildcats had six critical second-chance points from their eight second-half opportunities. Boxing out, as it turns out, is a critical detail.
Michigan led by 11 points after the first possession of the second half on the strength of an outstanding performance by Glenn Robinson III (right, Fuller), who had 16 points on a perfect 7/7 mark from the field at halftime. For the first time all season, Robinson consistently created his own offense, beginning with a nifty head fake in the post that led to a layup for his first points of the game. Robinson was a non-factor in the latter stanza, however, adding just three points on 1/2 shooting, and the team managed just 12 points—three on a desperation Spike Albrecht shot with two seconds left—in the final 7:55.
The Wolverines still had their opportunities in the late going. The teams played dramatic back-and-forth basketball in the final couple minutes. After Rondae Hollis-Jefferson's three-point play gave Arizona their first lead since the opening minutes with 2:32 to play, Mitch McGary retook control with a pair of free throws, then Brandon Ashley and Nik Stauskas traded quick baskets. Then, when Michigan looked to have the Wildcats scrambling for a good look, McGary picked up a very questionable touch foul on the perimeter; Arizona's Nick Johnson, who played outstanding defense against Stauskas all afternoon, rattled both free throws home with 24 seconds left.
Michigan then tried pushing it up the court for a quick shot; Stauskas got a decent look at a long two but couldn't get it to fall, and the Wildcats had the possession arrow when McGary tied up Aaron Gordon for the rebound. Johnson sunk another pair of free throws, Albrecht managed just a split after Arizona intentionally fouled him with seven seconds left, and Johnson essentially iced the game with a third consecutive perfect trip to the line. While Albrecht made it interesting with a pull-up three with two seconds left, the last-gasp prayer by Stauskas after a missed Arizona free throw only found backboard.
Despite the loss, there were many encouraging signs for Michigan. Robinson's first half certainly qualified, as did another strong second half from Caris LeVert, who finished second on the team with 15 points on 6/15 shooting, ten of those coming after the break. Jon Horford played 25 strong minutes, tallying four blocks—all in the first half—and throwing down a huge dunk on Gordon for his only points of the game. While Derrick Walton was limited to one point in just 14 minutes, Albrecht ran the offense well, dishing out four assists in addition to hitting three of his four attempts from downtown.
In the end, though, Arizona's size and athleticism simply overwhelmed; seven different Wildcats had an offensive rebound (five with 2+), and the massive front line of Gordon, Brandon Ashley, and Kaleb Tarczewski combined to score 46 points on 21/37 shooting.
"It gives us great confidence," said Beilein, referring to hanging in there against a team he praised highly. "But also an attitude to come back and get better now."
The path to improvement, of course, begins with the details.
Photos by Bryan Fuller/MGoBlog. Optional, highly recommended soundtrack.
While most of you were probably watching football, Michigan blasted an overmatched Houston Baptist squad this afternoon, tying a school record with 16 three-pointers en route to posting an absurd 1.64 points per possession and winning literally every statistical battle.
Nik Stauskas led the team with 25 points, shooting a scorching 6/9 from downtown and looking quite spry on his previously-injured ankle after being rendered completely ineffective Tuesday at Duke. Glenn Robinson III scored 17 points on 6/9 shooting, mostly getting his buckets in transition, including a couple of spectacular alley-oops. Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin each posted 14 points; Irvin was very effective wit his perimeter shooting (2/2 2-pt, 3/5 3-pt) while Walton was a perfect 3/3 from downtown.
The story of the game, however, was Mitch McGary, Fast Break Point Guard Extraordinaire. The master of chaos finished with a stat line of 14 points, nine rebounds (one off.), six assists—tying his career high from last year's Syracuse game—four steals, and a block; five of his six dimes came in transition, as did a couple of his buckets.
#10's face pretty much says it all (Fuller)
"He's one of our better push men," John Beilein said in the post-game radio interview, referring to McGary's ability to start the fast break. "I don't think anyone wants to take a charge from him."
No kidding. I can't describe the experience of watching McGary charge down the court any better than The Wolverine's Andy Reid:
Mcgary leading a break is like seeing a car skitter uncontrollably down an icy hill, then whip around perfectly into a parallel parking spot
— Andy Reid (@AReid_Wolverine) December 7, 2013
For a brief moment in the second half, it looked like McGary's day had skittered to a halt; after attempting to block a Houston Baptist shot, he fell hard onto his back and lay on the court in what appeared to be a good deal of pain. Being Mitch McGary, however, he popped up to his feet, attempted to wave Jon Horford away from the scorer's table, and waved for the crowd to cheer louder as he skipped—no, seriously, skipped—to the bench. The crowd obliged.
From there, McGary continued to put on a show, a freakily-skilled bull on parade leaving terrified defenders in his wake. Yes, it was a rote blowout against a bad team—the 54-point final margin was the largest for Michigan under Beilein—but it was a pleasure to watch. If this is Mitch McGary still rounding his way into shape, I can't wait to see what he looks like at full strength.
Duke's gameplan was obvious: don't let Nik Stauskas touch the ball, let alone shoot it, and force the rest of the Wolverines to find a way to score. Tyler Thornton and Matt Jones spent most of the game face-guarding Stauskas, limiting Michigan's leading scorer to four points—all on free throws*—on 0/2 shooting while the rest of the team faltered, save for a late push from Caris LeVert.
The 79-69 final score is rather deceptive; Duke led by double-digits for most of the game and pushed the margin as high as 18 points in the late stages, with Michigan unable to get closer than six points behind in the second half. The Wolverines scored 19 fruitless points in the final two minutes to carve eight points out of the deficit; by that time, Duke was content to keep Michigan at arm's reach with their free-throw shooting.
Simply put, this game was a major indictment of Michigan's supporting cast—at this point, it's clear that Stauskas is the offensive star, the rest playing supporting roles. Glenn Robinson III's woes on both ends of the court showed up at the worst time. He was nearly invisible offensively and ineffective when he attempted to get aggressive, scoring eight points on nine shots—with half those points coming after the game was well in hand—and failing to get to the free-throw line. He couldn't create a clean look for his jump shot or get around defenders to attack the basket. On the other end, he was pulled from the game at least once for repeated failures to box out his man, and when Michigan got lost on perimeter switches he was often involved.
Until Caris LeVert decided to put the team on his back in the second half, when he scored 20 of his team-leading 24 points, nobody else stepped up, either. Duke's aggressive hedging against the pick-and-roll made it difficult to get the ball to Mitch McGary in the post; even when he was open, the guards failed to get him the ball in good position—eight of his 15 points came in the final two minutes after Duke basically stopped boxing out. Derrick Walton had a couple very nice takes to the hoop in transition en route to seven points on 3/6 shooting; in the halfcourt, however, he couldn't facilitate the offense, tallying just one assist to three turnovers, one of which was a what-was-that pass deep into the Cameron Crazies. Zak Irvin was limited to 14 minutes and managed five points on five shots.
LeVert was certainly a bright spot in the second half, slicing his way into the lane with regularity, finishing well, and getting to the line; after going 2/5 in the first half with no free throw attempts, he shot 6/13 from the field in the latter stanza and knocked down all seven of his shots from the charity stripe. If there's one positive to take away from this game, it's his apparent willingness to be the go-to guy when Stauskas is rendered ineffective; after waiting on Robinson and McGary to be the guy, he had to step up and did so. Yes, he's occasionally overmatched by bigger players on defense; he's also very effective at the top of the 1-3-1 and is clearly the team's second-best offensive player this year.
His emergence in this game was too little, too late, unfortunately; Michigan needs more than one of their perimeter players to score consistently if they want to beat good teams, and they didn't have an answer when Duke took away Stauskas. I don't think this is a coaching issue; when an opponent is flat-out turning their back to the play and solely focusing on denying one player the ball, the rest of the offense should be able to create open looks while playing four-on-four. Aside from LeVert, nobody could manage this as Duke funneled everything inside—Michigan was 3/13 from beyond the arc—and forced the perimeter players to beat them off the dribble.
A loss to Duke at Cameron is nothing to be ashamed of, but the way this game played out should be very worrisome for Michigan. Stauskas has been identified as the main threat, and now there's a blueprint for stopping the offense cold unless someone else—not just LeVert—raises their level of play. This is still a young team that can improve dramatically over the course of the year; it's clear they're going to have to if they want to compete for a Big Ten title.
*To further emphasize how much Duke took Stauskas out of the equation, three of his four free-throw makes came after Blue Devil technical fouls, not anything he did offensively.
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.