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Wolverines Struggle Through First Two Mid-Major Opponents

NCAA Basketball: North Florida at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The old Michigan adage is that it takes time to learn the John Beilein offense. It’s filled with intricacies, weird terms and offensive sets so complex that NBA teams don’t even bother using it. It’s also one hell of an excuse to forgive Michigan for sleepwalking through the first two games against North Florida and Central Michigan, but it’s the one that Michigan fans can cling to now.

The four most game-ready players at this point are Duncan Robinson, Moritz Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Charles Matthews, and all four had up and down outings in their first two games. Starting point guard Zavier Simpson (still weird with a Z) looks more like the player he was from high school, but his diminutive stature still makes him a bit of a liability at point guard. As for his backcourt counterpart, Jaaron Simmons, well... hopefully he’ll figure it out sooner rather than later.

With that, let’s get into a new format of the Michigan feature. Every week, I’ll go through the MVP of the week (usually one of the starters), surprise of the week (usually one of the bench guys), and the Charles Matthews highlight play(s) of the Week. If you disagree with any of these, go ahead and give me a hard time in the comments section. I probably deserve it.

MVP of the Week: Moritz Wagner

Wagner didn’t have the flashiest numbers, but for a guy with one career double-double to have two in the first week warrants an MVP award. The junior from Germany clearly has become more comfortable playing around the basket, a welcome sign when his 3-point shot (1-for-8 to start the season) isn’t falling. He’s had a couple really nice drives, and his chemistry with Matthews on the offensive end appears to be something Michigan fans can get really excited about as the year goes on.

Perhaps the biggest improvement in Wagner’s game is defense and rebounding. He looks stronger, wider, and is finally putting his butt into people rebounding. There’s a concerted effort he’s showing that we hadn’t seen in the first two seasons, and this absolutely has something to do with Wagner’s entrance to the NBA draft. Scouts probably told him what he needed to work on, and Wagner’s 11 and 12 rebound games are already both more than he had in a single game the first two years.

Surprise of the Week: Jon Teske

When you’re 7-foot-1, usually your job is to grab rebounds, block shots and dunk. Easier said than done. Teske has been excellent in a backup role to Wagner this season, changing shots against North Florida and blocking a few (and getting called unfairly on a foul) against Central Michigan. Teske is not going to be playing 15-20 minutes a game, and any suggestion that he and Wagner share the floor seems ludicrous to me. But Teske’s presence as an Isaac Haas-type player that Purdue always seems to find (seriously, they just got another Haas clone named Matt Haarms) will be enough to give Wagner a rest and keep the defensive intensity.

Charles Matthews Highlight Play(s) of the Week

Charles Matthews is a dude, let’s start there. Michigan has been craving someone like Glenn Robinson III since he left, and while Matthews probably is a slightly worse athlete but better shooter than Robinson, he’s a welcome presence on Michigan’s team. This week, Matthews had two highlight reel plays that we’ll break down here:

After Eli Brooks missed a 3-pointer against North Florida, Matthews runs from the corner unmarked and jams home a putback dunk. It looked eerily similar to what Robinson did countless times during his Michigan career, and Matthews definitely has a chance for a few more of those before his time runs out.

On Monday, Matthews stole a pass against Central Michigan, runs the length of the floor, Euro-steps (probably a travel?), and dunks it home. The length, speed, defensive ability and versatility he shows on this one play is pretty insane, a major reason why Beilein will use him all over the floor defensively.

The Week Ahead

Michigan plays Southern Mississippi Thursday night, a team that beat Southern-New Orleans by only 10 and gave up 42 points in the second half. There’s probably not much to take away from this game, as long as Michigan is able to move to 3-0 before a grueling trip to Hawaii awaits.

The Wolverines have games in back-to-back days in Maui, starting off with LSU Monday night for an unbearably awful 11:30PM ET tip for us east coasters. They’ll face either Notre Dame or Chaminade depending on the result of both games, and if they make the final, which they probably should, expect to see Wichita State at the end of the bracket. The Shockers are ranked in the top-10 to start the year, and a lot project them to make the Final Four with the talent they have.

Overall, this Michigan team has a ton of raw talent that is still trying to find its footing. The bench besides for Teske will need to step up Thursday night to at least provide Beilein with a semblance of competency behind the starters, and maybe Robinson will snap out of his shooting funk.