After two victories in the first week of the season, Michigan travels to New York to partake in the 2K Classic on Thursday and Friday night. The Wolverines face a good Marquette team (9:30PM ET, ESPN2) in the first matchup, and play either the winner or loser of SMU and Pittsburgh depending on their result Thursday night. Before we discuss New York, let’s take a look back at some of the positives and negatives from Michigan’s first two games.
Starting with Friday night, Howard provided a good test of a mid-major team projected to win its league. Michigan opened its season in a scoring drought for the first five minutes, but finished the first half with a 34-25 lead. It got even easier in the second half, as the Wolverines cruised to a 76-58 victory that was extremely sloppy, but a victory nonetheless.
Perhaps the biggest standout was D.J. Wilson, who gave great minutes and energy off the bench. The junior finished with eight points and nine rebounds in 20 minutes off the bench, and gives John Beilein a great defensive look when Duncan Robinson isn’t knocking down shots. The two Michigan rotation freshman, Xavier Simpson and Ibi Watson, both appear to be a few games away from really contributing, but giving them the opportunity to play at this stage in the season will be crucial for their development later on in the year and in future seasons.
In the second game of the season on Sunday, Michigan came out sluggish against a mediocre IUPUI team. The Jaguars came out strong, giving Michigan all they could handle through the first 16 minutes before jumpers by Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Watson gave Michigan the lead that they stretched to 11 points at halftime. Michigan ultimately went on to win 77-65, but at this point in the season individual performances are more important than the margin of victory.
Four Wolverines finished in double figures, and all seven rotation players who played at least double digit minutes finished with at least seven points. This type of balanced production can’t be expected every game, but it’s great to see both Moritz Wagner and Mark Donnal contributing solidly in the frontcourt. On the perimeter, Zak Irvin led the Wolverines with 15 points on 6-11 shooting, and continues to favor that curl elbow jumper that he’s mastered.
With two games in the books, Michigan remains truly untested. These early season tournaments give coaches a great gauge on their teams, including what they need to work on going forward and which players are ready to break out. When the Wolverines play Marquette at Madison Square Garden in New York, hopefully we’ll have some insight to these questions.
The Golden Eagles have been led by JaJuan Johnson, a 6’5” senior who has had a great start to the season. The guard poured in 21 points and had six steals against Vanderbilt, and followed that up with 14 points in a win over Howard. Marquette has used the 3-ball to their advantage so far, knocking down 13 in the win over Vanderbilt and nine more against Howard.
This is in part due to their four guard starting lineup, which features transfer Katin Reinhardt, a journeyman who started his career at USC before graduating from UNLV. Two other players Michigan should be wary of are Haanif Cheatham and Luke Fischer. Cheatham started all 33 games as freshman last season for Marquette, and looks to build on his impressive 12 points and three rebounds and assists per game. Fischer, the former Indiana Hoosier, was a force inside last season alongside NBA draft pick Henry Ellenson, but anchors the middle alone this year.
Regardless of the outcome, Michigan will have a tough test either way in their second game. Newly appointed head coach Ben Howland leads Pittsburgh this season, featuring Michael Young and Jamel Artis who have done a bulk of the scoring for the Panthers. Pitt’s offense has been rolling, but they gave up 90 points to Eastern Michigan and 80 points to Gardner-Webb in two closer than expected victories. If Michigan can run and knockdown 3s, something that both Gardner-Webb and Eastern Michigan were unable to do, it could give the Panthers fits.
The other potential opponent is SMU, a Michigan foe the previous two seasons. The Wolverines lost last year and the season before to the Mustangs, including a beatdown in Dallas last season. A lot of familiar faces still play for first year coach Tim Jankovich, including Ben Moore, Shake Milton and Sterling Brown, while Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye has fit in seamlessly so far.
Michigan has their work cut out for them, but with two winnable games in New York, these are resume opportunities that not many teams get in the second week of the season. I’m curious to see how John Beilein tinkers with his lineup, including whether D.J. Wilson and Mark Donnal are inserted into the starting lineup. Either way, Michigan is going to need solid production from its veterans in New York, but if they’re able to get it, could steal two big wins in non-conference play.