On Monday, it was ugly. It doesn't matter if you're a basketball purist or the most optimistic Michigan fan in the entire country. Michigan won a hard-fought battle against the Oregon Ducks 70-63, in large part because John Beilein willed them to based on lineups. As the number 19th ranked team in the entire country, Michigan struggled throughout, as they failed to find a go-to scorer down the stretch and resorted to free throws and clutch rebounds. Coach Beilein is very comfortable in sticking with players that are playing well, and Monday was no exception.
Despite a poor rebounding game (3) in 24 minutes, Ricky Doyle showed Michigan that he has the potential to be a star at the 5 position. Max Bielfeldt had done so in the Bucknell game, but Doyle accompanied his 3 rebounds with 10 points and a block in 24 minutes of play. The only other bench player that cracked double-digit minutes was Spike Albrecht, who is becoming a de-facto starter for Beilein by playing 35 minutes. Beilein was fully aware of Oregon's smaller lineup, despite the fact that Dillon Brooks and Dwayne Benjamin combined for 18 rebounds compared to Michigan's 29 total.
But Michigan can point to a few positives to build off of. Star guard Joseph Young only had 20 points on 5-16 shooting, meaning the Wolverine guards pressured him into tough shots all night. The Ducks as a team only shot 39% from the floor, including a dismal 5-19 from 3. This mean that Michigan's length clearly bothered Oregon, and even using Aubrey Dawkins in spots (7 minutes, 8th most on Michigan) can be beneficial in disrupting opposing teams' offenses.
Overall, there's not much to take away from this game. Oregon does not start a traditional lineup, and struggled mightily from the get-go. No one on the Ducks had a phenomenal shooting night, but Zak Irvin was the only Michigan player to get it going (6-11, 19 points) for the Wolverines. Michigan will salvage a solid, non-conference win at a neutral site, but there is much work to be done. Villanova trounced a top-15 VCU team, with "glue guy" JayVaughn Pinkston destroying my scouting report by going for 15 points and 7 rebounds. Villanova was able to get tremendous production out of their 8 players who played double-digits, and Michigan was in for a phenomenal but tough test Tuesday night for the Legends Classic Championship.
On Tuesday, it was arguably uglier. Michigan could only muster a measly 20 points in the first half against a very good Villanova team. The second half went from bad to worse, as Villanova scored the first six points and jumped out to a 33-20 lead. Michigan was forced to burn 3 timeouts before the under-16 TV timeout, and everyone could feel the momentum fully in Villanova's favor.
But before you could blink, Michigan had turned a 13 point deficit into a 6 point lead, storming back to lead 47-41 with under 8 minutes left. Thte final quarter of the game was thrilling, as both teams made clutch plays down the stretch. Caris LeVert was especially phenomenal, hitting step back jumpers and making crafty plays in the lane to keep Michigan close all the way through.
With 24 seconds left, Mark Donnal was fouled and missed the front end of the 1 and 1. Villanova came down on the ensuing possession, dumping the ball inside to JayVaughn Pinkston who barreled over Caris LeVert and finished at the rim. With 8 seconds left and the game on the line, Zak Irvin rose up for a dunk only to have it swatted by Pinkston and a few other Villanova players. Villanova iced the free throws down the stretch, and held on to win 60-55 in a phenomenal early season game.
While Michigan can be gutted about losing such a heartbreaker, there are still positives to be taken away from this game. First and foremost, Villanova is one of the best teams Michigan will see all season, and is arguably one of the 7 or 10 best teams in the entire country.Their guard play was outstanding, and Dylan Ennis' poise throughout the entire game was remarkable. Inside, Daniel Ochefu was a man against the boys of Michigan's frontline. But Michigan was still able to hang in the game throughout, and their run was sparked by defense, transition offense and 3-point shooting. This will have to be the "bread and butter" for Michigan all season, simply based on the personel Beilein has.
Overall, Michigan played one pretty good team (Oregon) and one outstanding team (Villanova) and came away 1-1. Michigan fans are quick to forget that last year's Elite Eight squad started the season 6-4 before finding their groove in December. This Michigan team is not as talented at this point, but they have more options, and certainly more room to improve.
One positive to take away is the play of Michigan's four backcourt veterans. Even in a loss, Derrick Walton, Spike Albrecht, LeVert and Irvin were pretty solid across the board as Michigan's best four players. Until Beilein can find more consistency in the frontcourt, he will have no choice but to use this lineup for as many minutes as possible. They broke the press well, created great opportunities for one another, and LeVert especially looked like one of the best all around players in the country.
While it's great to celebrate the accolades and what Michigan was able to accomplish, there are still a few areas of serious concern. In the backcourt, if Michigan chooses to go with Walton and Albrecht, they are giving away serious size at both the point guard and shooting guard positions. Most teams do not have big point guards, but if Walton is matched up with a 6'6 shooting guard on defense, this could pose serious problems.
The final issue is the frontcourt. John Beilein tinkered, prayed and watched Michigan's bigs accumulate 12 fouls in 40 minutes of play. Sure, they had some production, totaling 9 points and 5 rebounds, but this has to improve. There still has to be concern surrounding the center position because no one has emerged as Beilein's best option. Mark Donnal doesn't look like he is equipped to guard any position on the floor. Ricky Doyle still moves his feet slowly and committed a few garbage fouls 70+ feet away from the basket. Max Bielfeldt is only 6'7 and gave up a jumpball rebound to 6'2 Villanova guard Josh Hart. Until Beilein can find a solution to this position, Michigan will have to rely on its guards to shoulder the load. It's getting closer, but it's not perfect. It might never be, but Michigan fans are hoping they can find more answers than questions by the time Big Ten play begins.