The Wolverines are now 10-1 on the season after taking care of business against Delaware State. Michigan has done what it was supposed to do against the teams they‘ve faced so far, excluding, of course N.C State. They’ve exhibited the defensive identity that was stressed during the off-season, as evidenced by their opposition’s paltry 35.3% field goal percentage through 11 games. That said, Tommy Amaker’s club still needs to become more efficient running their offense. That will come from making better passes, crisper ball rotation, not picking up the dribble too early, better player movement and screening off the ball. All those things will help improve the Wolverines biggest deficiency thus far, perimeter shooting. Much of the Wolverines continued improvement falls on the shoulders of the point guard tandem of Dion Harris and Jerret Smith. Harris has played pretty well at the position, leading the team in assists, including a game in which he dished 10 dimes last week. He continues to get better and finding the balance between getting his own offense and setting his teammates up. His decision making skills appear to be getting better by the game. Jerret Smith, on the other hand, is someone Michigan needs much more from in terms of his decision making. Though clearly Michigan’s best natural passer, Smith has shown some tentativeness on the break and at times has waited too late to get the ball where it belongs. He has improved his perimeter shooting and has done a decent job of knocking down his open three-point looks, but he doesn’t seem as eager to drive the ball to the basket. He has that in his game and he needs to do much more of it.
One of the knocks against Tommy Amaker over the years is that he is too laid back on the bench. Those looking for more demonstrativeness probably have been pleased by Amaker’s more frequent chastising of referees regarding his displeasure with calls and his willingness to really gives it to his players during timeouts (though that is something he has always done). His players seem to really respond to the way he expresses his passion for what he wants from them on the floor.
Speaking of passion, Courtney Sims showed some toughness during Saturday’s game and the crowd loved it. He was tied up with a Delaware State player for the ball and when they began wrestling for it. When the visiting player got a little too aggressive, Sims shot the young man an elbow to the chest. Amaker was seemed to be as encouraged by the exchange as the fans. “I don’t advocate getting a technical, but it’s nice to see his passion and I am hopeful we will continue to have that,” he said. Sims is already leading the team in points per game. When he shows his toughness, he REALLY is a load to handle down low. Hopefully we’ll see it a little bit more.
On December 23 Michigan heads out west to play the top ranked UCLA Bruins at Pauley Pavilion. This may come as a surprise to some, but this is a game that the Wolverines actually have a chance to win. Michigan has an advantage up front and if they play to that strength, they could pull of the upset. The key word is “IF.” The Maize & Blue had a similar advantage up front last year when they played against young and inexperienced adversaries in the paint. When the two teams actually locked horns, though, that advantage did not materialize. Ben Howland’s youngsters outplayed Michigan’s big men down low, besting them in points (16 to 12) and rebounds (23 to 20). This year the Wolverines have even more athleticism up front and that will have to show for them to be successful. If it doesn’t it will be a very long day because the Bruins have the advantage in the back court, especially when it comes to quickness.
Regardless of the disparity in the rankings between the two teams, Michigan should not get blown out of the game. Patience, hustle, and focus should at least make them competitive. This game will let the Wolverines know where they are among the nation’s elite. It will let the nation know as well. This is a game that also helps when it comes to recruiting the big time players that Michigan will need to compete in the future. Can they do it? Yes. Will they do it? In two weeks we will find out.