John Beilein’s opening statement at Thursday’s presser was typical John Beilein fare.
The Michigan men’s basketball coach described his team’s opponent this Saturday, Air Force, as a “real challenge for us.” According to Beilein, the Falcons have some size, along with a decent level of experience, and he expects a great game from them. Playing them, in his words, “is going to make us a better team.”
“Hopefully,” Beilein added, “it does with a victory.”
Spoiler alert: it will. The Wolverines are given a 99 percent chance, per KenPom, to beat Air Force — KenPom’s 252nd-ranked team. Their chances of beating No. 326 Binghamton next Saturday are even higher, at 99.6 percent.
The Falcons mark the second of three games that Michigan has come into with at least a 99 percent chance of winning. The first of these games, though, was a thoroughly unimpressive 70-62 win against Western Michigan last Saturday, a game where it seemed as if the Wolverines sleepwalked through long stretches. Other than redshirt junior guard Charles Matthews — who has struggled from the foul line in his career — hitting nine of his final 10 free throws down the stretch, there weren’t many reasons for encouragement in the aftermath over the win against the Broncos.
Here’s the thing, though: there’s nothing wrong with that.
The Wolverines traditionally schedule a host of guarantee games towards the end of December, as preparation for Big Ten play, but also as much-needed relaxation. Beilein noted some players will fly home Saturday night directly after the Air Force game, representative of the relative tranquility of this period in the season.
“You’re not going to be at every game all year long the exact same intensity,” he admitted on Friday.
Michigan has already shown what it can do at peak intensity. It announced itself on the big stage with a dominant, 27-point road win over No. 8 Villanova, and throttled No. 11 North Carolina 84-67 on Nov. 28. The Wolverines are 11-0 and ranked fourth in the nation, in large part because they’ve out-intensified just about every team on their schedule.
There’s nothing Michigan needed to prove against Western Michigan, and there’s nothing it needs to prove against Air Force or Binghamton. If the Wolverines merely show up and play basketball, the end result won’t be any different than if they fully flex their massive superiority.
But December’s trio of buy games shouldn’t merely be a meaningless transition from one part of the season to the next. If Michigan has spent the last two months laying the foundation of a national contender, it can spend the next few weeks fortifying that foundation.
The Wolverines’ current rotation runs just seven or eight deep, depending on whether you count redshirt sophomore center Austin Davis, who averages over 10 less minutes per game than the other seven. It’s one of the thinnest rotations in the country — Michigan is 339th nationally in bench minutes per game.
Bench minutes aren’t as important as one might think, though: North Carolina in 2013 is the only champion in the last 10 years to place among the top 100 in this category, and in 2015, Duke won it all despite ranking 310th. The Wolverines’ core is as good as any in the nation, and if the NCAA Tournament began today, they could make a Final Four run with just seven players.
But it’s still a matter of sustainability. The NCAA Tournament doesn’t begin for three months, and Michigan getting there at top form with just seven players is exceedingly unlikely. As Beilein noted, it’s impossible to sustain peak intensity over a five-month season, and it becomes even harder to do so with a limited rotation. Players inevitably grow fatigued, and sometimes get injured. The Wolverines will, at some point, need to develop an insurance policy.
Freshman forward Brandon Johns was made available at the Wolverines’ presser before Western Michigan, and this Thursday, freshman guard David DeJulius was brought out. While this timing of these availabilities was more due to the challenges of finals than anything else, it coincidentally hints at Michigan’s next challenge.
Johns possesses droves of athleticism, and Beilein hinted Saturday that Davis received backup minutes at the ‘5’ due to the size of the Broncos inside. Every sign points to Johns being right on the rotation’s cusp. Air Force, with no player taller than 6-foot-7, marks an opportunity both for Johns to assert itself and the Wolverines to find their depth and flexibility.
The same applies to DeJulius, whose physicality and shooting ability might add a key dimension behind junior Zavier Simpson and sophomore Eli Brooks. On Friday, Beilein stated that the biggest hurdle for DeJulius currently is the pace of the game, and the challenge of having to prepare for new, vastly different opponents in rapid succession.
“My message to my players is: as long as you’re going to play basketball, and many of you want to now and after, you're going to keep learning,” Beilein said. “And I think that's the toughest thing for most freshmen.”
Added DeJulius: “When I first got here, it was a major struggle, and I feel like I’ve came a long way. I have a long way to go, but I feel like I’ve made some major strides, and I’m just going to use that momentum to keep going forward.”
Michigan had a full week to prepare for Western Michigan, and has the same scenario for Air Force and Binghamton. There’s ample time to both rest and learn, and with wins essentially guaranteed, the pressure is low. Johns and DeJulius don’t have to become impact players in the next week, but if they can find a way to contribute, it just sets the Wolverines that much better for what lies ahead, setting a firm foundation on top of which the core of the team can remain as fresh as possible.
If two easy blowouts do, in fact, make Michigan a better team, this is how it will happen.
Shames can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Jacob_Shames.