A struggling South Carolina team traveled to Ann Arbor and acquitted themselves well, but Michigan’s offense (particularly the efforts of Jordan Poole) was enough to keep USC at arm’s length. The Gamecocks entered the contest outside the Kenpom Top 100 and had lost to Stony Brook, Wofford, and Wyoming - and they put up the best offensive performance of any Michigan opponent this season at 1.10 points per possession. Still, the Wolverines managed to overcome an uncharacteristic spate of turnovers and scored effectively themselves: 60% on twos, >40% on threes, and 23 made free throws. Ultimately, Michigan’s lead was never in serious danger for most of the game, but they let South Carolina linger.
Before the first TV timeout, Jon Teske made an impressive two-way impact: he drew a goaltend after slipping a layup, followed a Ignas Brazdeikis miss for two, finished an alley-oop layup from Jordan Poole, and forced three South Carolina misses inside. The Gamecocks were undeterred though, and played through their big men all afternoon. Senior power forward Maik Kotsar took advantage of his size advantage over Iggy in the post, and All-SEC center Chris Silva won his share of battles against Teske. Silva finished with 18 points and 12 rebounds; Kotsar turned it over five times but wound up with 16 points.
The game was dead even halfway through the first half, as Michigan’s turnovers held them back. On the first possession, Poole overthrew Charles Matthews on a lob, and it didn’t get much better from there: Simpson tried to thread a few passes that led to live-ball steals, Matthews caught a pass with his foot on the line, and Brooks attempted another failed alley-oop, all withn the first seven minutes of the game. The turnovers, which persisted throughout the game (Michigan finished with 16), contributed to South Carolina’s preferred, up-tempo pace - and this game wound up having the most possessions of any thus far this season for Michigan.
Iggy, who struggled from the field, helped keep the Wolverine offense afloat along with Teske as South Carolina’s offense found some success. The game was tied at 27 when Iggy took a hard foul from Alanzo Frink to send the game to the under-eight timeout in the first half; from there, Michigan went on a 13-2 run, featuring a couple steals that led to easy baskets, an Isaiah Livers three, and a Teske put-back dunk. Michigan extended the lead to 11 with time dwindling in the half, but a couple nice plays from Silva tightened the game. A step-in two for Iggy before the buzzer put Michigan up 42-36 at halftime.
The Wolverines opened the second half hot. Simpson made one of his now-trademark swooping layups high off the glass; two offensive rebounds by Matthews helped atone for first half foul trouble and netted him four points; most importantly, Poole got hot. He finished with 19 points on just 11 shot equivalents in the second half, and got going in a hurry - a three off a Simpson ball-screen, a step-back three from the wing, and a transition dunk, all before the first TV timeout. Another fast-break bucket from Poole capped a 10-2 run and extended Michigan’s lead to 14 with 13 minutes left, and South Carolina never got the deficit back to fewer than eight points.
They kept on scoring though, and managed to keep a respectable distance. It was a poor defensive showing from Michigan against the second-worst offense in the SEC and while the Gamecocks did make contested shots in the paint, they were able to go to work inside against the Wolverines. In addition to the 34 combined points from their starting bigs, South Carolina got double-figure scoring from two of their three freshman starters, and their designated shooter hit all three of his threes. The Gamecocks took very few threes for a modern game, but they hit 53% of their twos. It was the second game in a row in which Michigan’s hitherto outstanding interior defense has looked vulnerable.
On a different day, that could have proved to be an essential component of an embarrassing upset, but the Wolverines were great offensively (1.25 points per possession) against a quality defense. Poole was phenomenal, especially in the second half, scoring with flair and showing off his range with some difficult threes. John Beilein trimmed Michigan’s rotation even further, as Eli Brooks and Austin Davis only played a combined 10 minutes and didn’t score, but the rest of Michigan’s personnel played well offensively. Iggy made up for inefficient shooting by going 11-12 on free throws (and had 17 points); Matthews played well in a complimentary role, defending AJ Lawson, SC's top scorer, and totaling 12 points of his own; Teske had a line of 15-9-3 blocks in another impressive game for him; Livers hit four threes after a cold spell over the last two weeks; Simpson - as usual - was the catalyst. The turnovers were the only real problem.
This won’t go down as one of Michigan’s better performances, but they did manage to avoid putting the outcome at risk and won by double digits. With three buy games against mid-majors over the next few weeks, the Wolverines will have an opportunity to shore up the defense after these last two games and possibly experiment with rotations featuring more depth. Barring a catastrophe, they’ll retain their undefeated record through the New Year.
[Box score after the JUMP]