Michigan pointed to Friday night’s match-up with Xavier as its first big test of the young season.
It wound up being a test that the Wolverines didn’t pass.
The 86-70 defeat at the hands of the Musketeers highlighted the work that John Beilein & company must do, especially on the defensive end of the floor. The Musketeers owned the “points in the paint” comparison 34-14 and outrebounded the home team 47-29. The visitors may have run away with the game much earlier had it not been for the gritty effort tuned in by Caris LeVert.
The senior wing notched 16 first half points on 5/9 shooting. He attacked the rim, scored in transition, knocked down 2/3 from three-point range and added seven rebounds, seven assists, and two steals for good measure. A 13-4 Xavier run before the break sent the visitors to the halftime locker room with a 45-36 lead. As impressive as LeVert had been Beilein knew his team would have to display greater offensive balance to have a chance at coming back.
Michigan’s captain picked up right where he left off coming out of the locker room with an assist to Ricky Doyle on a pick & roll and then a three-pointer. Then his teammates stepped to the fore. Five other Wolverines scored in the following eight minutes, including two threes by Duncan Robinson. By the time LeVert hit his next three at the 10 minute mark the Wolverines had cut the lead to 61-59. That, though, is as close as they would get.
Despite being more balanced on the offensive end, the Wolverines suffered breakdown after breakdown defensively.
The issues began in first half when the Michigan’s big men had problems contending with Xavier big man Jalen Reynolds. The former Livonia (Mich.) Stevenson standout was extremely effective in the paint, scoring 13 points and grabbing five rebounds before the intermission. He also went to the foul line nine times.
“It is the technique of guarding in the post where we are putting our hands on people,” Beilein explained. “We work at it like crazy. We run to the top, run sprints and do everything. We got to break the habit and maybe today was a great example of that, but that was big in the first half. If you put them to the foul line, they are a good foul shooting team. I think they shot forty percent in the first half, but they were at the foul line so much. We know better and now you just learn. You are not running to Crisler and back or running sprints, you got handed on your home court, so now hopefully we learn those things better.”
Only Ricky Doyle had any success limiting Reynolds, a feat that was he was rewarded for by starting the second half. Unfortunately for the Maize & Blue Xavier continued its success in the paint… in a different way.
Dribble penetration proved to be Michigan’s Achilles heel after the break. Former Detroit Country Day star Edmond Sumner was particularly effective getting to the rim. After being held scoreless in four minutes of action in the first half, he was a major catalyst in the latter part of the second half. He finished the game with nine points and three assists in the second half.
“Out of any skip pass or rise up where you got a guy close out… people are just driving right at you,” said Beilein. “They are going to shoot it or drive it right at you. We are trying not to foul, but that is hard for us to do against that quickness. They just went right at us. (Remy) Abell and Myles Davis just looked like men out there. Their bodies are strong and quick and went right at us, so if someone certainly saw Spike and just boom. So that is hard stuff for us right now and we got to coach it and do it better. "
When the Wolverines attempted to go to zone to limit penetration they gave up open looks from three and struggled mightily to rebound out. Transition defense was an issue as well.
Xavier outscored Michigan 25-11 in final ten minutes. While obviously not pleased with the outcome, Beilein quickly shifted his focus after the game to improvement.
“They’ve got all the pieces (and) they’re gust really good,” Beilein said of Xavier. “They hit the backboards obviously much better than us. They got loose balls, they had tremendous grit, and then they’ve got a great mix of guys that can drive the ball, guys that can shoot the ball, (and a big man. So they’re sitting on something great right now, and they have for long time at Xavier. They have a really experienced team that knows how to win. They’ll vie for a Big East championship is what I think and they’ll be a team that is going to be very good all year long."
“We obviously have a lot of work to do, and that obviously was a great example of the work we have to do. I’m not upset. I said, ‘okay no there it is. These are the things that we have to work on as a coaching staff and that you have work on individually.’ So that’s what it is right now. I’m disappointed, but I’m not discouraged. Disappointed for a day and get back to work on Sunday."
Caris LeVert led all scorers with 29 points, seven rebounds and three assists. He was the only Wolverine in double figures.
Xavier had four players in double figures led Jalen Reynolds’ 15 points and nine boards, Trevon Bluiett’s 15 points and nine boards, and Remy Abell’s 15 points and one assist. Miles Davis rounded out the quartet of double-digit scorers with 14 points and six boards.
Next up for the Wolverines are the Connecticut Huskies in Wednesday in The Bahamas as part of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. Game time will be 9 PM EST and will air on AXS TV.