The last two games in the Michigan men’s basketball team’s schedule couldn’t be more different than the portion that preceded it.
The Wolverines went from playing in Maui and Chapel Hill and Columbus and Austin to hosting two of the worst teams in college basketball seemingly in the blink of an eye. They went from playing 11 games in 34 days to just two games in 14 days.
It was seemingly a welcome shift for Michigan, as Saturday’s game against Jacksonville – the 338th-ranked team in the KenPom rankings – was nine days after its previous matchup with Alabama A&M – the 350th-ranked KenPom team. Expectedly, the Wolverines took care of business against the Dolphins, 76-51.
Yet, the Wolverines looked rusty early in Saturday’s game. It’s understandable, since the break between games wasn’t filled with practices but rather time with families, celebrating the holidays.
The rust reared its ugly head almost immediately. On Michigan’s first two offensive possessions, redshirt sophomore guard Charles Matthews and junior forward Moritz Wagner turned the ball over on traveling violations.
The Wolverines went on to commit 10 turnovers in the first half alone and 12 turnovers in the game to tie their season-high total.
“We had a lot of gunk in us. We just didn’t have some things going,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “… I’m not moving on to Iowa until I find out what happened in that first half offensively that made us so inefficient.”
It’s fair to wonder what exactly was wrong. Maybe it was simply the rust that comes with an uncharacteristically long break between games. Maybe Michigan is still a young team that hasn’t completely jelled together. Maybe it was Wagner himself.
The junior forward played 20 minutes in his first game returning from a foot injury. When he’s playing at full capacity, the Wolverines are that much more lethal offensively. After all, he’s the team’s second-leading scorer.
And it was obvious Saturday that Wagner wasn’t playing at that full capacity. He led the team with four turnovers, and he didn’t score a single point in the first half.
Like the rest of the team, though, Wagner eventually shook off the rust. Sure, he didn’t live up to his 15.6 points-per-game average entering the game – he scored just seven – but he did show flashes of his usual offensive ability once he did get going.
“It was great,” said fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson on Wagner’s return. “He brings so much emotionally to this team. It’s just great to have him back in practice, just on the floor these last couple of days, and then obviously in the game. You know, I think we saw, early on, that he was a little rusty, but he’s just getting back. It’s tough to sit out like that and come back and just never miss a beat. But we expect him to be back to his regular self.”
No matter what cost Michigan its sharpness, it didn’t matter. Beilein said after the game that he believed if the Wolverines had been playing a Big-Ten-caliber team, they would have lost.
But it wasn’t a Big Ten team, and it wasn’t LSU, VCU, North Carolina, UCLA or Texas. It was Jacksonville, so the rust didn’t matter. Now Michigan has three days to make sure that rust is knocked off completely before it is a Big Ten team.