ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The Michigan basketball season got off to as expected start Friday evening, as the Wolverines dispatched a feisty Northern Michigan team 70-44.
Michigan was paced on the night by the strong all-around outings by Aubrey Dawkins and Caris LeVert. Dawkins served as LeVert’s setup man on LeVert’s first two buckets and also chipped in with a bucket of his own to help the home team get out to a 12-2 lead six minutes into the contest. The visitors then fought back with a 9-3 run during the subsequent six minute span to narrow the lead to four (15-11) with 7:53 in the first half. That, though, is as close as Northern would get.
Two free throws by LeVert and soaring tip slam by Dawkins pushed the lead back to eight points. By halftime the Wolverines were up 36-26, but it was still too close to comfort for Michigan headman John Beilein. He noticed the attention to detail on the defensive end for his team was lacking, and he made sure to address that issue during the intermission.
“In the first half we didn’t finish some possessions by fouling,” Beilein said. Three or four times we fouled with less than five (seconds), and that can’t happen. I think they had a couple air-balls and we were heading up the floor saying, ‘somebody get the rebound.’ We have to finish possessions every time. That is back-breaking when you don’t finish. Now you have to guard them for 35 more (seconds). As always, when you get skinny guys and you develop their bodies they don’t like it to be physical. You’ve got to have physical block outs. So those will be the two things I know we’re going to see if we can do well.”
The Wolverines responded after break with more inspired play on the defensive end of the floor. That was reflected in the precipitous drop in shooting percentage by Northern… down from 43.5% on 10/23 shooting in the first half, to a paltry 25% on 7/28 shooting in the second half.
“We were pleased especially in the second half with the way we defended,” said Beilein. “With the new dribble drive rule, which is a good rule, their quickness to get underneath us and to drive the ball (meant) we had to play really solid team defense. That start of the second half was really good for us because it got us some space.”
|Aubrey Dawkins by Rick Osentoski, USA TODAY Sports|
Another obvious ingredient to building the lead was continuing the offensive efficiency that the Wolverines started the game with. The home team picked up right where it left off after the break with Dawkins keying 12-2 run with three pointer and a rim-rattling slam to make the score 48-28 by the first media timeout.
Dawkins finished the night with a very efficient clip: 15 points on 6/7 shooting (including 2/3 from three-point range), six rebounds, and two assists.
“He didn’t have to force anything,” Beilein said. “He is making more plays. He never would have busted out (to lead a) break (last year). He made a two-on-one play that he blew up in practice yesterday. He watched the video with us today, and then he made it perfect today. So there’s the application that we stress with all of our guys. ‘How are you going to apply what we’re learning every day, and how soon can you do it?’ So that was good. And six rebounds… that’s something he wasn’t doing last year. We’re encouraging him… unless the guard is underneath or the shot comes from the corner by a guard, you’re on the backboard."
LeVert stuffed the stat sheet in similar fashion, leading the Wolverines with 18 points on 7/12 shooting (including 2/5 from three), five rebounds, four assists, and two-steals. The return of the Wolverines senior playmaker clearly makes life just a little bit easier for his head coach.
“You just don’t have to have this play-card that is trying to dial things up all the time,” Beilein said describing LeVert’s impact. “He is just going to make plays in space where it’s either in transition… which he was really good in today… or he will just opt out of an offensive set because he needs to because they played it a certain way. So he sees the floor well. His passing ability is way underrated. We like to have the ball in the hands. It’s not like you’re racking your brain trying to find ways to score. He really helps you out in that area.”
LeVert’s role as a starter and as the team’s catalyst is pretty well established. Dawkins and Derrick Walton are also fixtures in the starting lineup. After those three is where the uncertainty begins creeping in. Just as was the case in the exhibition game, the Wolverines went with Mark Donnal and Kameron Chatman in the starting lineup. That said, how they’ll fit into a rotational puzzle that has a large number of possible pieces remains to be seen. Making matters more difficult is the fact that it can’t be totally figured out until Zak Irvin returns to the court and Spike Albrecht gets into playing shape.
Albrecht played 11 minutes and scored seven points on 2/5 shooting in 17 minutes. He was one of an 11 player rotation that wound up including freshman Moritz Wagner. The German import convinced the coaching staff he was ready for action by adding an aggression edge to his play in practice. That paired with his impressive skill made burning his redshirt an easy decision, but it also made figuring out who the regulars will be that much tougher.
“I wouldn’t call it fun yet,” Beilein said. “The best teams are still going to have eight or nine people in a rotation.”
The next step in figuring that out will take place Monday night at the Crisler Center when the Wolverines take on Elon. The game will tipoff is set for 7 PM (EST) and will air on ESPN3.