On Friday, the Michigan Wolverines began the 2019-’20 season with an exhibition matchup against Saginaw Valley State University in Ann Arbor. Nobody expected the game to be close, but it would provide some insight into the Wolverines moving forward.
Early on, Michigan’s defense took control. The Wolverines not only forced Saginaw Valley into tough shots, but also forced some turnovers and were able to get out in transition. And while things closed up a bit later on thanks to some turnovers from Michigan, the Wolverines were able to close out with an 82-51 win.
So, what did we learn?
What We Learned:
1. Things feel different in Ann Arbor.
We knew this was coming, but this was Juwan Howard’s first game as Michigan’s head coach. He was hired after long-time head coach John Beilein departed for the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Howard took the job with no prior head coaching experience, but with plenty of potential. It was a calculated risk that Michigan hoped would work out.
Friday was only game one (technically an exhibition) with Howard at the helm, but there was a different feeling in the air in Crisler. Beilein’s frantic pacing beside the court was replaced with a calming presence. For the first few minutes of the game, Howard simply sat court side, seemingly taking it all in. He eventually began standing and displaying the behavior we’ve come to associate with coaches, but even the initial delay was a change for Michigan’s program.
The Wolverines also played at an accelerated pace. While Michigan was known for offense under Beilein, the team was actually one of the slower groups in the country. Well, that no longer appears to be the case. Michigan pushed the ball on Friday night and really relied on transition to get things going offensively. We will see if that keeps up moving forward.
Whether Howard can deliver remains to be seen. However, fans will certainly feel the difference in his presence on a nightly basis.
2. Where is the shooting going to come from?
One of the biggest concerns Michigan had coming into the season was the team’s perimeter play on the offensive end. The Wolverines were losing the team’s best two three-point shooters in Ignas Brazdeikis and Jordan Poole and many were wondering who would step up to fill the void.
If Friday night was any indication, Howard and his staff still have to figure that out.
During the course of the evening, Michigan went 9-for-31 from three-point range. The team’s most productive shooter was probably Isaiah Livers. Against an opponent like Saginaw Valley, one would expect those numbers to be a little better. The return of Franz Wagner in a few weeks should help in this regard, but Michigan better figure out its outside shooting if it wants to make a serious push at the NCAA Tournament and beyond this year.
3. Two familiar faces showed some major improvement.
When a new season begins, most people focus on a team’s returning stars and its newcomers. These are the “flashy” pieces that will take up most of the text in season previews. And admittedly, I am as guilty as others on this front.
The players that get lost in the mix are the returners without the lofty expectations. Players that arrived with promise, but didn’t hit the ground running for whatever reason. And on Friday night, Michigan had two of those players in Eli Brooks and Livers fall squarely into that category.
Both players have seen plenty of action before, but both were a tad under the radar entering this season. Well, both showed some major flashes on Friday night. The two led the team in first half scoring and were arguably the team’s best two players on the floor. Brooks looks like he’s improved his handle and footwork and Livers looks slimmer and faster in transition. If those two can keep things rolling, that would be huge news for Michigan.
4. We might have to wait a minute on a few others.
Two players on the opposite side of the spectrum on Friday night were Cole Bajema and Adrien Nunez. Fans were hoping the two would be able to contribute significantly this season, but early signs indicate the two probably need some more development. Nunez probably needs to work a bit more on his handle and Bajema has to adjust to the speed of the college game still, especially with regard to getting his shot off.
Both players could still have some great times ahead. However, these are guys that Wolverine fans would be better served checking in on later.
It’s hard to take too much away from an exhibition game at home against an overmatched opponent. But even with that said, it was a special night in Ann Arbor, as Howard led Michigan to his first victory as head coach. The team played fast and showed some solid signs for the months to come. And that has to get fans excited.
Michigan will now prepare for its regular season opener on Tuesday night at home against Appalachian State. Howard will hope to keep things rolling for the Wolverines.