It wasn’t the way the Michigan men’s basketball team expected to open up the season.
The Wolverines started 0-for-6 from the floor and didn’t score a basket until the 14:41 mark of the opening half in their season opener. But eventually they found their stroke, beating Howard, 76-58, in the first game of the 2K Classic’s Ann Arbor regional at Crisler Center on Friday night.
“It was good to get back out there and play a great Howard team,” said redshirt junior forward Mark Donnal. “They showed us a glimpse of a really good (zone defense). It’s good to get a win like that under our belt.”
After its tough start, Michigan recovered quickly with two 3-pointers from junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rakhman to tie the game at six before senior guard Derrick Walton Jr., who led the Wolverines with 20 points, buried a triple with 12:14 left in the half to give the Wolverines a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
It wasn’t all dandy for the Wolverines, though. Michigan’s half-court offense was stagnant for most of the game, and the Wolverines struggled to find open players against what Michigan coach John Beilein called a “unique” defense.
“I’ve been coaching a long time, and what Howard did defensively is something I don’t recall seeing actually,” Beilein said. “It’s an aggressive matchup zone, and they took some stuff away. They were really flying around with really quickness. We may not see that type of quickness all year long.”
On the other side of the court, Michigan’s defense was temperamental. At times, Howard was able to easily drive by the Wolverines, causing easy points and fouls — Michigan ended the first half with 13 fouls. At other points, Michigan’s 1-3-1 zone defense stuck with the Bison players to force stops, which helped it to a 34-25 halftime lead.
The second half highlighted much of the same for the Wolverines. Michigan was unable to find open looks on offense, while defensively, Howard was able to run the floor on the Wolverine defense. At one point, the Bison cut Michigan’s lead to just five.
“We saw part of the zone where we had open guys,” Donnal said. “Some of our plays weren’t working from the start, and we made some adjustments that allowed us to get guys open in the middle and make a play from there.”
One of the Wolverines’ biggest deficiencies last season was their rebounding. While the battle on the glass went back and forth for most of the game, Michigan was able to edge out Howard, 30-28.
One of the biggest questions going into the season was who would start at the ‘5.’ While sophomore forward Moritz Wagner started the game for the Wolverines, redshirt junior forward Mark Donnal was given ample playing time and scored 12 points while grabbing 6 rebounds in 23 minutes — eight more than Wagner.
“I thought I was pretty active on the boards and (was able to) grab some offensive rebounds and keep some plays alive,” Donnal said. “I think both offensively and defensively, I just held my own and tried to be an energy guy of the bench.”
But the player who impressed the most was redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson. In 20 minutes of action, Wilson put up nine points and eight rebounds, with the highlight being a two-handed put back slam off a missed shot from Abdur-Rakhman.
“I’m a lot more comfortable on the floor than I was last year,” Wilson said. “I’m letting the easy points come to me and not forcing anything. As far as rebounding (is concerned), just going after it because I know that’s something that we need.”
It wasn’t the prettiest of performances from Michigan on Friday night, and the Wolverines will have just two days to work out the kinks before they take on IUPUI.
But with the season just getting under way, building confidence is important, and that comes with winning.
And that’s exactly what the Wolverines did.