In entirety of the 2015/2016 season Michigan faced a zone defense only 100 times. Total.
Friday night against Howard and its pesky match-up zone that lack of familiarity showed early on. The Wolverines started 0/6 from the field and didn’t score for over five minutes. It was an early test, but John Beilein came away pleased that his club found a way to answer it on the fly.
“We may not see that type of quickness all year long,” Beilein said after Michigan’s 76-58 victory over the Bisons. “We found a way. We had all kinds of plans. Some of them worked, some of them didn't... but it came down to ‘play ball. And we played ball when we needed to.”
Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman finally got Michigan on the board with a three pointer at the 14:41 mark. On the ensuing possession he followed that up with another triple off of a pass from Derrick Walton to knot the score at six.
A couple of minutes later Walton gave Michigan’s its first lead of the game on a three-pointer of his own to make the score 11-9 with 12:14 to go in the first half. It was one of Walton’s four triples in only seven attempts on the night. The senior point guard aggressively sought his own offense all night and wound up with a game high 20 points. Fourteen of those points came in the first half, including a perfect 6/6 from the charity stripe.
“I said Derrick this is a game where you're going to need to hunt out on top,” John Beilein said recalling his pregame chat with his floor-general. “He made some big shots for us. He hit four threes. He has got to do it. There were several times I wanted him to shoot. He has to have that mentality.”
Walton still managed to show his textbook unselfishness also. His assist on a Duncan Robinson corner-three capped off a 13-4 run that made the score 21-13 with 6:43 left in the half. The home team eventually increased that lead to double digits before heading into the break with a 34-25 lead.
Howard closed the gap to five points shortly after the intermission, but the Wolverines responded thanks in large part to the spark provided by junior forward D.J. Wilson. He converted an and-one opportunity to push the lead back to eight, before a triple by Zak Irvin made the score 49-38 with 10:23 to go in the game.
Wilson was the Wolverines most active player in the second half, notching all nine of his points and eight rebounds after the break.
“We've been seeing (that type of production) in practice a little bit,” Beilein said of Wilson. “There are still a lot of things to his game we're working on like that half-court pass, but he is getting more and more comfortable on the perimeter… as long as he is going in to rebound the way that he is. He should be able to rebound with that length. He is a guy that we can run to the rim. He obviously is a very good outside shooter as well. I think it's really good to see him having fun out there playing. (He) gives us a great option in the offense. On defense hopefully over time he can become a stopper for us.”
Michigan’s lead ballooned as high as 21 points in the game’s waning moments. Outstanding free throw shooting (23/26) and bench production were big keys. And despite Howard’s respectable shooting percentage (46.5%), the Wolverines’ headman thought his team’s defense was a big key as well.
“Up until they made a few shots at the end I think our defense was really good the whole time,” said Beilein. “We forced 17 turnovers. (Howard shot a) high percentage, but 17 turnovers was part of that. Just a good performance defensively. Then off the bench the 21 (points) and the 14 (rebounds) I believe that we got out of D.J. and Mark Donnal. That's what we needed last year if you recall. Who was going to be six, seven... come off and really give us something? They really did a good job.”
Leading up to the season John Beilein mentioned his desire to redshirt one of his freshman big men. Jon Teske had been the favorite to burn his, and against Howard that’s exactly what he did.
“We used the redshirt tonight on Teske already,” said Beilein. “Just watch he is going to see more minutes as well. That’s the plan if he keeps developing.”
And the plan for the other frosh, Austin Davis?
“The plan right now is to only put him in there if he is going to see big minutes because the three (other big men are there) are there. (With the redshirt) He would be in a different class.