For the second Saturday afternoon in a row, Michigan recorded an underwhelming win over an inferior opponent. Western Michigan is worse than South Carolina, but the Broncos played the Wolverines closer throughout the game — they led for much of the first half and Michigan was unable to pull away. Michael Flowers, a sophomore guard, had a career game and scored 31 points, but Michigan made key plays down the stretch to keep Western at bay. With the Wolverine offense struggling, especially in the first half, Charles Matthews stepped up in a featured role for Michigan: he had 25 points and 10 rebounds, and shot 11-16 on free throws.
The game got off to an ugly start, and it stayed ugly through most of the first half. Western opened with a concerted effort to get the ball to Seth Dugan in the post; he scored the first five points for the Broncos but was defended well throughout the game by Jon Teske, Austin Davis, and even Isaiah Livers. Outside of a few early Jordan Poole buckets, Michigan really struggled to score, missing their first seven threes and failing to finish on drives through traffic. The Wolverines were able to get to the free throw line often, mostly thanks to the aggressiveness of Matthews — and they missed seven of their first ten at the charity stripe.
The two teams were tied at seventeen with just over five minutes remaining in the half, and Western had maintained a consistent lead for most of the early going, when Flowers started to get hot. He posted up Zavier Simpson, got two feet in the paint, and scored; he hit a tough step-back three; he made a mid-range jumper; he scored on a really difficult layup after getting grabbed by Simpson; he drew a foul on a free throw line jumper and made both free throws. Within the span of about two minutes, Flowers scored 11 points and Western opened up an eight point lead.
Michigan responded. After Matthews missed two free throws, Flowers took a deep heat check and missed. That miss led to a transition bucket for Matthews, and then Michigan forced four turnovers on consecutive possessions. Western is one of the more turnover-prone teams in all of college basketball, and Michigan’s defense vaulted the Wolverines back into the game. Matthews hit both free throws after Western gave a transition foul; Davis threw a long outlet to Simpson for a layup; Matthews pickpocketed a guard and threw down a two-handed breakaway dunk; Poole jumped a pass and missed a dunk that would have given Michigan its first lead. A strong defensive possession leveraged Flowers into a miss with the clock ticking down on the half, and Matthews went coast-to-coast for a buzzer-beating finger roll to put Michigan up 30-28.
Western continued to turn the ball over after the break (they finished with 16 turnovers in the game) and Michigan went on an extended 24-4 run to go from down eight to up twelve. Matthews continued to attack the basket for layups and drawn fouls, Simpson knocked down a couple of open threes, and Poole hit a patient step-back three off a screen. The run coincided with Michigan’s best defensive stretch of the game, and the presence of Teske — who sat for most of the first half due to foul trouble — was key.
Within five minutes of the start of the second half, Michigan looked to be on the verge of a rout. After another Western timeout, the Broncos had a bad offensive possession bailed out by a tough and-one bucket for Flowers over Simpson. Sharpshooter Jared Printy got loose for a three, Dugan made a nice move on Davis for a layup, and the deficit was down to five. From there, the margin oscillated between five to ten points, with Michigan unable to ease out to a more comfortable lead and Western unable to make it a one-possession game.
In key spots late in the game, John Beilein called timeout — only to run a high ball-screen for Poole. Both situations led to positive outcomes for Michigan: on the first, Ignas Brazdeikis hit a tough runner off residual action for his first points of the game; on the second, Simpson wound up finding Matthews open in the corner for a dagger three. Western kept threatening, as Kawanise Wilkins scored on some physical moves, and Flowers hit a deep three and drew a few fouls, but Michigan always seemed to have an answer.
Matthews was the star for Michigan: he attacked the basket relentlessly, and even though he missed a few layups, he scored from the free throw line, had some offensive rebounds, and even knocked down a couple threes. Michigan needed that type of performance. Simpson had an uncharacteristic game — he made threes, but turned it over four times and Flowers gave him problems — but he and Poole chipped in with a combined 29 points. It was tough for everyone else. Iggy was held to just four points and had some ugly misses, Teske scored just one basket, and Livers was off from three. Eli Brooks and Davis were solid but not impactful.
On the whole, it was the Wolverines’ worst performance of the season. The early ice cold shooting eventually regressed to the mean, which helped stave off the upset, but Flowers had a fantastic performance and Western looked like a capable opponent and not a team that was ranked outside the Top 200 (per Kenpom, Torvik, and Sagarin). In the end, the Broncos gave away too many possessions to have a chance at the win. Michigan’s first win in this three-game stretch against poor opponents was an uncomfortable one, but they’ll get a chance to get back on track next weekend against Air Force.
[Box score after the JUMP]