By defeating Northwestern Sunday, Michigan ran its record to a perfect 17-0, marking the best start in program history. One of only two remaining unbeaten teams in the country, with Duke suffering its second defeat of the season Monday, the Wolverines are primed to move into the top spot in the polls. After a rough end to the football season, spirits are high again in Ann Arbor.
This was always going to be a good Michigan team. But this good? And this fast? Michigan’s start caught almost everyone outside of the Wolverines’ locker room by surprise. How did a team that lost so much from last year’s Final Four squad come out of the gates so quickly? And, while were asking questions, how good is this Michigan team?
While it might be a stretch to say that the Wolverines have been notoriously slow starters under head coach John Beilein, there’s no denying that Beilein’s Wolverines have often found another gear by the time the snow starts to melt. Last year served as a perfect example, with the Wolverines spending much of the season on the NCAA tournament bubble, only to eventually come together, defend their Big Ten tournament championship and advance all the way to the NCAA championship game. A team that was unranked as late at mid-January, Michigan finished the season winning 14 consecutive games before falling in the title game.
But if any season looked like it would take a while to come together, it was this one, as the Wolverines had to replace the heart of their team with the departures of Mo Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson. Over the summer, Beilein was asked about losing so much leadership from last year’s team. Beilein was quick to point out that he was also losing some pretty good players. “It’s more than the players,” Beilein said, “It’s the style that we could play with those guys.” Indeed, the trio provided unique match-up problems, but they also provided a more tangible 36.7 points and 88.3 minutes a game.
Having to replace so much production coupled with an early season schedule that included traditional powers Villanova and North Carolina, along with Providence and Purdue, Wolverine fans were primed for rocky start as the Wolverines sorted out their line-up. But that’s not what happened. Michigan recorded blowout wins against all four opponents, including a 27-point win over Villanova and a 17-point win over North Carolina.
The Wolverines are winning this season largely for the same reason and the same way they won last season: Led by their defense. Last season, seemingly overnight, Michigan transformed itself from a team known for having a unique and efficient offense, but also had difficulty defending and rebounding at times, to being one of the premier defensive teams in the country. The Wolverines rode that defense all the way to the NCAA championship game last season and have been playing at perhaps an even higher level defensively this season. There was a time when Michigan’s toughness was questioned. Those days are gone.
But you can’t win games on defense alone, and on offense, it’s truly been a team effort. Beilein also said prior to the season that, “I think we have a chance to be a really good defensive team again, but offensively … we’re a work in progress.” Not so much. Earlier this season, the Big Ten Network’s Jon Crispin noted that the Michigan doesn’t have any great players, but rather has many good ones. On a team that will inevitably send a handful of players to the NBA, saying there are no great players might be a little extreme, but his point was a valid one, that Michigan comes at you a lot of different ways.
Michigan may not be the deepest team in the country, only going seven or eight deep, but the Wolverines are as balanced as any. Six players average between 8.0 and 15.6 point a games and each starter has led the team in scoring at least once. In perhaps the greatest testament to their balance, against Northwestern Sunday, the Wolverines were led by two players not typically thought of as scorers, Zavier Simpson (24 points) and Jon Teske (17 points). It’s a large part of what makes Michigan so formidable: Even if you shut down two or three players, there are two or three others that can still hurt you.
One player that can hurt you is freshman Ignas Brazdeikis. The precocious Canadian has mostly exceeded expectations and has been the team’s leading scorer all season. Didn’t think the freshman would be ready for the bright lights? Brazdeikis went for 11 and seven against Villanova and was the best player on the court in Michigan’s blowout victory over North Carolina, leading all scorers with 24 points on nine of 13 shooting.
Another such player is Charles Matthews. The most outstanding player of the NCAA West Regionals last year, Matthews toyed with turning pro before returning for a second season In Ann Arbor. Matthews is both Michigan’s most versatile offensive player, averaging just over 14 points a game, and its best defensive player not named Simpson. In fact, Beilein credits Matthews’ ability to play on-ball defense, as much as his offensive prowess, for allowing him to stay on the court as much as he is.
Best known for his season saving, buzzer-beating three-pointer in the NCAA tournament last season, sophomore Jordan Poole has blossomed into a star in the making. If Brazdeikis is Michigan’s leading scorer and Matthews its most versatile player, Poole is Michigan’s most fluid offensive performer. Poole has an easy way about his game, is shooting 50% from the floor, 45% from beyond the arc and his step-back-three is the prettiest shot in Michigan’s arsenal this side of a certain running hook shot that’s suddenly getting a lot of attention.
If anyone has improved their game as much from last year as Poole has, it’s Teske, who has developed into one of the team’s most important players. One of Michigan’s biggest concerns coming into the season was size, and Teske has filled that void nicely. Teske provides Michigan a legitimate rim protector and is growing more adept on the offensive end with every game. Post up moves are few and far between, but Teske has proven more than capable of converting short jumpers, and as-of-late, the occasional three-pointer.
But if there is a driving force behind this Michigan team, it’s Simpson. It’s no coincidence that since Simpson applied a stranglehold on the starting point guard spot, Michigan has won 30 of 31 games. When Simpson elevated his game last year, Michigan became a different team, and he’s continued that strong play this season. Illinois’ Brad Underwood went to far as to suggest that Simpson should be part of the Big Ten MVP conversation. Simpson sets the tone defensively and runs the show offensively, controlling the action and always looking to find shots for his teammates. It’s not often said of someone who averages less than ten points a game, but it’s hard to argue that Simpson isn’t Michigan’s most important player.
With this combination offensive diversity and tough defense, the Wolverines should continue their strong play into the second half of the Big Ten season and are a good bet to make another deep NCAA tournament run. But that’s down the road. For now, if you’re a Michigan fan, or a college basketball fan in general, you owe it to yourself to tune in to the second half of the season and enjoy one of John Beilein’s best teams.