UNCASVILLE, Conn. — John Beilein’s teams are known for shooting. You might have forgotten that recently.
All last year — and all through the opening few weeks of this season — the Michigan men’s basketball team beat teams into submission with its defense. It did the same to George Washington in Saturday’s 84-61 win, holding the Colonials to 39.1 percent shooting from the field. But that 3-point shooting was back, in full force.
Sophomore guard Jordan Poole, whose struggles had marked those of the Wolverines’ offense, was 5-of-8 from deep. Fellow sophomore guard Zavier Simpson, the face of that defense, dropped in 4-of-7 from beyond the arc. Sophomore forward Isaiah Livers was 3-of-4; redshirt junior forward Charles Matthews was 2-of-2.
This was an old school win, at least if we define old school in Beilein’s terms. The Wolverines shot 15-of-30 from deep, which you might call good if you felt like understating things.
“Me and Jordan were having a little contest before the game, in warmups,” Simpson said. We were telling each other — we just brag on each other like, ‘Our shot is feeling good today.’ ”
After struggling through the season’s opening two games, Michigan’s offense has surged. That’s been buoyed in part by opponents playing man defenses as opposed to zones, in part by simply hitting open shots and in part by playing Livers at center.
On Saturday, there was little choice in the last of those. With redshirt sophomore center Austin Davis out with a sprained ankle, Livers was the first 5-man off the bench once junior center Jonn Teske picked up a foul.
Immediately, he keyed a run, hitting two triples and looking as good as he ever has.
“They came in with their big guy, we said, ‘Ok, let’s mismatch him,’ ” Beilein said. “And so having pop — that’s a little Moe Wagner type of presence there, having him playing the 5-man.”
Let’s be clear: Saturday was a game Michigan was supposed to dominate offensively, especially after blowing the doors off Villanova on Wednesday. But the Wolverines were also supposed to dominate Norfolk State and Holy Cross in the same way. They struggled in those games, and after a five-minute scoreless streak late in the first half, George Washington had the lead cut to single digits.
The game went into halftime that way, and once the second stanza opened, Michigan found its footing again. Poole nailed three straight triples, Simpson started to let it fly and shots started to fall like rain.
Suddenly, and for the second straight game, this John Beilein team looked like a John Beilein team. Defense is still the foundation, but scoring — at least for these two games — was a feature, not a bug.
This isn’t a team with a lot of natural shooters. Poole is the only starter who shot over 33 percent from outside last season. Simpson and Matthews have both struggled keeping opposing defenses honest.
That wasn’t a problem on Saturday — not in the least.
“Our confidence never really wavers,” Matthews said. “You come to our practices, everybody’s staying late, getting extra shots up. Everybody’s always working to get better, so we understand — shots are gonna fall. … It’s only a matter of time.”