John Beilein, typically straight-laced, took a turn for the philosophical on Thursday. In the leadup to the No. 24 Michigan men’s basketball team’s Friday-night clash with Xavier, he referenced a Muhammad Ali quote he felt represented his team’s early-season development:
It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out, it’s the pebble in your shoe.
The pebble, Beilein said Thursday, is random inconsistency in games and in practice. Even if four players are crashing the boards for an offensive rebound, for example, there always seems to be one standing and watching.
“Or there’s one that doesn’t call out a screen,” Beilein said. “These are small things … we’ve got to get that pebble out of our shoe, because it’ll be hard to go where we want to as long as those things are lingering.”
More annoying to Beilein is the fact that there’s no single culprit — it’s a seemingly random rotation of players suffering from momentary mental lapses.
As Michigan’s season progresses, Beilein’s need to trim his 12-man rotation is becoming more pressing, and it’s the minutiae, in games or in practice, that could make the difference in what he says are “dead heats” at several positions.
For now, though, the undefined rotation might serve as an advantage. The Wolverines have used four players — redshirt sophomore Mark Donnal, sophomore Ricky Doyle, redshirt freshman D.J. Wilson and freshman Moritz Wagner — at the ‘5’ spot, and all four might be needed against the Musketeers.
Xavier’s Jalen Reynolds, a Detroit native, is the biggest low-post threat Michigan has faced so far, and a by-committee approach from the big men might be needed to stop him.
“Well, we have fouls to give there now,” Beilein said, noting that he’ll have no choice but to use all four players despite his desire to slim down the Wolverines’ rotation. “We’ll have to. That is just a very strong, experienced player, good athlete, (who’s) really going to be tough for any of our guys to defend.”
Though none of Michigan’s big men has more than a season of NCAA competition under his belt, Beilein said the concern with Reynolds goes beyond experience. It took former Michigan forward Jordan Morgan five years to become an ‘elite defender,’ Beilein said, and even he would have his hands full against Reynolds.
It’s not just the low post that could give the Wolverines trouble. Michigan’s coaching staff has encouraged its shooters, including junior guard Derrick Walton Jr., senior guard Caris LeVert and redshirt sophomore guard Duncan Robinson, to be more aggressive in shooting off ball screens this season. But the Musketeers’ backcourt includes lengthy guards like 6-foot-5 Edmond Sumner and 6-foot-6 Trevon Bluiett, whose size could pose issues for the Wolverines as they look to take advantage of narrow open spaces around the perimeter.
“I just think you’ve got to be much more sound with your fundamentals,” Walton said, adding that Michigan has worked at getting players better looks off perimeter screens in recent practices. “(Shooting off the ball screen) has been preached since we all got here, to everybody (Beilein) has faith in to shoot the ball.”
The Wolverines’ smaller guards, however, could match up favorably against Xavier’s Myles Davis. If swingmen like LeVert and sophomore guard Aubrey Dawkins can take care of their opponent’s backcourt size, they could create openings for players like Walton and Albrecht to leave the 6-foot-2 Davis feeling kind of blue.
Beilein said he would wait until after Thursday’s practice to decide on a starting lineup for Michigan’s first legitimate test of the year. The Wolverines’ ninth-year coach listed Doyle, Wilson, sophomore guard Kameron Chatman and junior forward Zak Irvin as being among a list of players he’s on the fence about starting.
Dawkins, LeVert and Walton all seem like safe bets to start, and while Beilein didn’t mention him specifically, Mark Donnal started in Michigan’s exhibition opener against Le Moyne and in both of its regular-season games to date.