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Michigan Splits Games, But Can Build Serious Momentum Going Forward

Michigan played two huge programs this week, splitting the games against Texas and UCLA.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at UCLA Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

If you watched both of Michigan’s games this week, you’d think the Wolverines were two completely different teams. The offense and defense took turns in these games, and ultimately enough defense won the game Tuesday night and lack of offense undid the Wolverines against UCLA.

On Tuesday, Texas came to Ann Arbor in need of a signature win. Through the first 18 minutes, Michigan seized control, racing out to a 31-22 lead. Texas closed the half on a 6-0 run to cut the lead to three, and the Longhorns and Wolverines exchanged buckets back and forth for the majority of the second half.

The guy who made the key plays down the stretch, and the player of the game, however, was Moritz Wagner. The German sophomore was phenomenal, grabbing an offensive rebound off a Zak Irvin miss and finishing a layup to give Michigan the 51-50 advantage with 16 seconds left. On Texas’ final offensive possession, Wagner had a huge block resulting in two Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman free throws that ultimately sealed the 53-50 win for Michigan.

While Wagner was outstanding (7-13, 15 points, five rebounds), he was one of only three Wolverines in double figures. Defensive stalwart D.J. Wilson was uber-efficient, finishing 5-6 with 13 points, two steals and two blocks in 36 crucial minutes. Duncan Robinson also found his groove, knocking down two three-pointers en route to 12 points in 21 minutes off the bench.

Coming into the season, Michigan’s best area was supposed to be the depth of the backcourt between MAAR, Derrick Walton Jr. and Xavier Simpson. The three combined for 10 points in this game, and Simpson, who many projected would be an immediate boost to Michigan’s rotation, has really struggled through his first 10 collegiate games.

If Michigan’s offense was lackluster in Ann Arbor, maybe the warm weather of sunny Southern California snapped them out of their shooting slump. The first half of the Wolverines’ tilt against UCLA was the best collegiate half of basketball I’ve ever seen. Both offenses were crisp, moving the ball for open shots, and knocking down three-pointers at a rate not usually seen in college basketball.

The Wolverine offense was borderline perfect, finishing the half with 19 made field goals, including 12 three-pointers on 75% shooting en route to 50 points. With time winding down, UCLA star freshman Lonzo Ball knocked down his fourth three pointer of the half from five feet behind the line, tying up the score at 50. It felt poetic that a half between such prolific offenses deserved to be tied.

In the second half, the Wolverines had chances but simply wore down. The Wolverines only connected on two three-pointers, UCLA shot 74% (!), and the Bruins ended up outgunning the Wolverines 102-84. Michigan has nothing to be ashamed about, especially given how well the Bruins have played to start their season, but there were absolutely chances Michigan had to keep the game even closer in the second half.

Just after the under-8 media timeout, freshman Ike Anigbogu missed two free throws. The Bruins were up 77-72 at the time, and the two missed free throws equated to a stop. But Gyorgy Goloman grabbed the offense rebound, converted the layup, and UCLA didn’t look back. An Aaron Holiday three-pointer 30 seconds later extended the Bruin lead to 82-72, and that proved to be the metaphorical nail-in-the-coffin for the Wolverines.

Despite the loss, there are still a huge number of positives to take away from this game. Michigan’s seven rotation players all had outstanding games offensively, as Zak Irvin led the way with 18 points and five rebounds. Four others finished in double figures, as Robinson (13), Donnal (12), Wagner (11), and Abdur-Rahkman (11) all had solid games, while Walton (9) and Wilson (8) were also productive.

Defensively, however, Michigan was largely inept for stretches of this game. The Bruins scorched Michigan for 102 points, shooting 67% from the floor and 62.5% from the three-point line. Michigan’s only hope for stopping the Bruins was from the free throw line, where UCLA only shot 50%.

The Bruins were as good as advertised, as five players finished in double figures. T.J. Leaf left the Wolverines helpless on too many possessions, as the freshman ended with 21 points and eight rebounds. UCLA’s other impact freshman, Lonzo Ball, seemed like he made all the big plays when the Bruins needed a bucket. His timely four first half three pointers allowed UCLA to keep pace with Michigan, and his backcourt mates Isaac Hamilton, Aaron Holiday and Bryce Alford all knocked down six shots as well.

This week, Michigan plays two teams that have a combined 2-17 record. On Tuesday, the Wolverines welcome Central Arkansas to the Crisler Center (9:00, BTN), whose lone win came against Army. Seven of the first nine games the Bears have played have come on the road, including their first game of the season against Wisconsin where they lost by 32. The Bears’ leading scorer is Jordan Howard, a 5’11” guard averaging 17 points and four rebounds per game. The junior already has amassed 1000 points for Central Arkansas, and he’s taken about half of his attempts from behind the arc.

Guard Derreck Brooks has had a greater impact in other aspects of the game, averaging 16 points and five rebounds per game. The senior began his career at Phoenix College before settling in to play his last two seasons in Conway. The third double figure scorer is Mathieu Kamba, a 6’5” guard from Alberta, Canada. Kamba plays predominantly inside the arc, and his 11 points and six rebounds help pace the Bears.

On Saturday, Michigan’s opponent is Maryland-Eastern Shore (3:00, BTN), another team that has played the majority of their games on the road this season. Their only win comes against Central Pennsylvania College, and they’ve traveled all around the country to play George Washington, Wichita State, Colorado State, Louisiana Tech and Virginia Tech, among others.

The Hawks also have three double-figure scorers, and are led by guard Ryan Andino. The senior attempts about 75% of his shots from behind the arc, knocking them down at a 45% clip. 6’6” forward Bakari Copeland averages just under 14, but the senior snags about five rebounds per game. Logan McIntosh averages 10 for the Bears, and the junior college transfer played his college ball at Northeast Oklahoma A&M before settling in Princess Anne, Maryland.

Overall, there shouldn’t be too much to learn from Michigan’s two games this week. Both should be relatively straightforward against two teams paid huge sums of money to travel around the country and get beaten up by power conference teams. The biggest thing to watch for is probably the amount of playing time that Xavier Simpson, Ibi Watson and even Jon Teske get. If the three freshman can get quality minutes and show flashes of skill in these games, John Beilein will be far more inclined to play them in conference games. If not, Michigan’s rotation is seven deep come January.