Though the Michigan men’s basketball team absorbed a couple of significant losses to its NCAA Tournament squad from last year, the starting lineup was supposed to be the area that provided this year’s team a sense of stability.
But when the Wolverines stormed out of the tunnel under the veil of darkness at Crisler Center on Friday night, two familiar faces were missing from the public-address announcer’s introductions: junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and senior forward Mark Donnal.
A late scratch due to an ankle injury suffered in practice Thursday, Abdur-Rahkman sat out of Friday’s season-opening exhibition game against Armstrong State. But Michigan found a capable replacement for the night, as senior forward Sean Lonergan jumped at the opportunity, providing an early spark for the Wolverines.
Donnal, on the other hand, has been locked with sophomore forward Moritz Wagner in a highly competitive battle for the ‘5’ spot in the lineup, and after a strong summer of improvement, Wagner earned the starting nod.
In a matchup against a Division II opponent, Michigan wasn’t challenged, so those two differences might not have been influential. But the impact made by Wagner and Lonergan in the Wolverines’ 77-49 victory over the Pirates warrants considerable attention.
While some might have been surprised to hear his name called, Lonergan wasted no time quieting the murmurs. With an assist and a block in his first minute as a starter and pair of driving layups soon thereafter, he helped propel Michigan to a 12-4 lead just five minutes into the game.
“Sean knows every position out there, and we didn’t feel we were in a point where we wanted to trade people around,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “… Sean sees the game pretty well and got us off to a really good start.”
Reaping the benefits of his new role, Wagner packed most of the punch for the Wolverines against the Pirates. Tallying 15 points on 7-for-9 shooting in 25 minutes, he showed off the growth of his game since the end of last season.
“I mean, you see the way he runs the floor, and you saw his skill level a couple of times, too, so that’s big — his development is huge,” Beilein said. “He’s going to have to get out there, like you said, and his defense is much better and he stayed out of foul trouble. He really understands that.”
For much of the game, Michigan had its way with Armstrong State, but the nearly 30-point blowout wasn’t always safely in the Wolverines’ grasp. For the opening five minutes of the second half, Armstrong State gave Michigan a run for its money, going on a 13-4 tear to shrink the lead to 11. Unhappy with the sloppy play of his team, which had succumbed to a string of bad turnovers and unforced errors, Beilein called a timeout to set the players straight.
“I hate turnovers, you know, they just lose you games,” Beilein said. “I think we had two missed dunks, and we had a couple of lob opportunities that just were lazy passes — they’re just bad turnovers.
“A missed dunk is a lob turnover, so we always say, ‘I want you to dunk like crazy, whenever you want to, just make sure it goes through the basket.’… Highlights are highlights because they rarely happen. You can’t try to make every play a highlight play.”
Instead of brushing aside nonchalant play as part of shaking off the rust, Beilein took the opportunity to teach his team a lesson. The Wolverines responded immediately, erupting with an outburst of 15 straight points to stretch the lead back to 22 and holding the Pirates scoreless for over seven minutes to end any real threat.
While it may not have been the most convincing of victories or the most important of games, Michigan walked away with enough promising performances across the board to feel optimistic about the season.
“There’s so many things that you can grow from when you have opportunities to just go play against somebody else. I find it very helpful,” Beilein said. “And probably the most beneficial time you’ll have during your early season will be the cut of the film after the first exhibition game, if you’re playing a game with some good quickness and you’re playing a game that merits the watching of the film, and I think that (game) does.”