In John Beilein's 800th career win, his Michigan team leaned on its defense and suffocated Norfolk State from the beginning en route to a comfortable, if ugly, 63-44 win. It took the Spartans (Not Those Spartans) over seven minutes to score their first points, which came on an unintentionally banked-in long two after Michigan had eased its way to an 11-0 lead. For most of the first half, the Wolverine defense was nearly impeccable, holding Norfolk State to just 0.37 points per possession and affording a misfiring Michigan offense a large margin of error.
Jon Teske was the standout for UM: not only did he lead the team in scoring (with 13 points) and rebounding (with 8, which was tied with Isaiah Livers), his defense in the paint was outstanding, as the 4 blocks he logged in the stat sheet is an insufficient record of how many shots he altered around the rim. After a swat as the help defender midway through the second half, BTN announcer Shon Morris remarked that he was "almost not fair," and it was hard to shake that feeling as he completely smothered any and every Norfolk State drive in his vicinity. Michigan's team will look quite different with Teske replacing Moe Wagner as the starting center, but early returns indicate that an already outstanding Michigan defense will be even more formidable with the surprisingly quick giant deterring opponents and swallowing up their shot attempts.
The wings mostly had rougher season debuts, and were the principal cause of Michigan's offensive troubles. Jordan Poole didn't hit a shot from the field, though he did have a few nice assists early on in the game before Norfolk State switched to its mix of zone defenses; Charles Matthews was active on the offensive glass and chipped in 12 points, but missed all four of his mostly wide open three-point attempts and - more worryingly - all five free throws; Ignas Brazdeikis had a rough first half in his first college game (featuring a rushed, contested two that was blocked after he'd conceded a layup, an airballed three, and a charge in transition) before making a few nice plays in the second. Livers, who played more minutes off the bench than the freshman did, had a nice game: protecting the rim, generating a few extra possessions on the boards, dishing out a few nice assists - including a drive and no-look dish to Brazdeikis for a dunk - and hitting a variety of shots.
That Michigan scored just 0.91 points per possession and still managed to win very comfortably speaks to how utterly overwhelmed Norfolk State was by what could be one of the best defenses in the country. The Wolverines did a good job of moving the ball against the zone and avoided turnovers for the most part (at least until late in the game, deep into garbage time), but just couldn't hit shots: 16/34 on twos (47%) against an undersized opponent and 6/26 on threes (23%). More worryingly, free throws were an issue even aside from Matthews, as Michigan hit just 13-29 of its free throws as a team (45%).
It didn't matter though. Even if most of Michigan's rotation was having an off night on the offensive end, their work on defense made those struggles irrelevant. The three guards, Zavier Simpson, Poole, and Eli Brooks (who played well on offense, hitting two threes and notching four assists to zero turnovers) were disruptive - forcing more turnovers than they were credited with in the box score - and did well to stay in front of Norfolk State's perimeter players. Most of the rare baskets they conceded came on tough shots, including multiple contested step-back twos. That first Spartan bucket was illustrative of simply how hard it was for them to score, as was their first made three, a turnaround deep buzzer-beater in the second half. In the end, Norfolk State scored 0.64 points per possession, a number that was better than all but two of the defensive performances over Michigan's 41 games last season.
Before the last five minutes of the game, when Beilein subbed out Teske for good and put in freshman big Brandon Johns, he went with a tight, eight-man rotation: the same starters as the exhibition (Simpson, Poole, Matthews, Brazdeikis, and Teske), the sixth man, Livers, third guard Brooks, and backup big man Austin Davis, who was active around the basket on the offensive end. By the end, all five freshmen had played, and the Wolverines closed with a lineup of David DeJulius, Adrien Nunez, walk-on CJ Baird, Johns, and Colin Castleton - so there will be no redshirts this season.
Once Michigan's strength of schedule ramps up, it's unlikely that opponents will look so uhapless on offense, but it's clear that this team has a ton of potential on the defensive end of the floor - and that starts with Teske, who looked outstanding against an overmatched Norfolk State team, and Simpson, who was his usual tenacious self tonight. Michigan's shooting struggles may or may not portend a rough year in that regard (it's far too early to tell) but their defense could rack up plenty of wins either way.
[After the JUMP: the box score]