Road wins are hard to come by. Just ask John Beilein, whose Michigan team didn’t pick up their first one last season until February 12th at Indiana and only picked up three all season (Rutgers and Nebraska). This year Michigan already has two, and missed out on a major chance for three at Ohio State. Despite not having the same level of senior leadership, the team already has a new identity last year’s team didn’t- depth.
While a lot of the early season accolades have rightfully gone to Charles Matthews and Moritz Wagner, the team’s most recent victory was highlighted by the outstanding play from the bench. This starts with Zavier Simpson, the sophomore point guard who patiently waited behind Derrick Walton last season despite playing in every game. There’s an added confidence to Simpson’s game, especially his assertiveness on jump shots and willingness to drive the ball to the basket. Simpson is a disruptive pest on the defensive end, playing the passing lane or providing immense pressure on the opposing team’s point guard. Simpson’s emergence could thrust him into the starting lineup, allowing freshman Eli Brooks to play against the backup in a more comfortable role.
While Simpson has been outstanding on the ball, freshman wing Isaiah Livers finally broke out for the best game of his young career. Livers knocked down all three of his 3-point attempts en route to 13 points, three assists, two rebounds and two steals in 27 minutes of play. But perhaps the most promising sign was on the defensive end, where Iowa forwards not named Tyler Cook were pretty much shut down. Livers finally seems up to speed at the Division I level, and it appears time to slide Duncan Robinson to a bench shooting role while Livers moves into the starting lineup.
On the interior, Jon Teske has done a masterful job of figuring out how to use his 7’1” frame defensively. A lot of Michigan fans were surprised that Beilein let redshirt senior Mark Donnal transfer, but he clearly wanted a rim-protecting option like Teske to back up Wagner rather than Donnal. Teske appears to be extremely comfortable offensively too, knocking down a few midrange jumpers along with his near-perfect finishing around the rim. His continued development is a welcome sign for Michigan not only this year, but for years to come.
The fourth and perhaps most intriguing bench piece is Jordan Poole. While Poole didn’t have a huge impact against Iowa, he knocked in a nice pump-fake 3-pointer off the dribble and had a steal in five minutes of play. With Charles Matthews and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman both playing well right now, it’ll be tough for Poole to get more than 10 or 15 minutes per game. But the numbers show his efficiency in that limited time- Poole is averaging a staggering 25.2 points per 40 minutes, making him the perfect shooting option off the bench.
With that, let’s get into the awards of the week:
MVP of the Week: Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman
While MAAR has had an up and down start to the season, he was completely dialed in this past week. The senior was a perfect 7-7 for 20 points against Jacksonville, and he followed that up with 15 points, seven rebounds and six assists against Iowa while playing 37 minutes. He often gets lost in the shuffle behind the big playmaking abilities of Wagner and Matthews and even the flashy shooting of Duncan Robinson. But make no mistake that MAAR’s steady scoring ability and improved 3-point shot over the last year make him a threat to go for 20 points or play nearly 40 minutes any game.
Surprise of the Week: Isaiah Livers
While MAAR appears to be getting his footing back on track, Livers is beginning to create his own magic in Ann Arbor. The freshman was Mr. Basketball in Michigan last season and carried lofty expectations, and some of those are beginning to come to fruition after 16 games. I mentioned Livers’ excellent game at Iowa above, but it’s his defensive presence that Robinson just doesn’t have that will allow Livers to play extended minutes throughout the Big Ten.
Charles Matthews Highlight Play of the Week
It’s been a little while since we’ve featured Matthews in this section, but he earned it this week. Matthews starts on the left wing, takes a dribble to the right before darting back to the left for a thunderous two-handed slam.
Matthews’ versatility to both have the ball-handling ability on the perimeter and athletic ability to finish at the rim highlight why Michigan has run their offense through him this season. If it continues, Matthews could be one of the breakout stars of the Big Ten.
The Week Ahead
On Saturday, Michigan welcomes Illinois to the Crisler Center for both teams’ fourth Big Ten game. Illinois sits at 0-3 in the Big Ten and just dropped a game in Minneapolis against the Golden Gophers. The Illini don’t quite have an identity, and this is a game both on paper that Michigan needs to win.
The Wolverines follow it up with a home game against Purdue, one of the three toughest tests remaining on the schedule. While Illinois is pretty much a must win, the Purdue game is one of the three games on the schedule (two against Purdue, one against Michigan State) that Michigan can lose without it negatively affecting the resume. A win in one or two of these three games, however, would go a long way in March. I’d suspect the Wolverines go 1-1, but 2-0 would have Michigan feeling pretty darn good about next weekend’s tilt against the Spartans.