After a turbulent start to the season saw the Michigan men’s basketball team win its first three games in less than convincing fashion, the Wolverines took to Maui with questions abound and answers few and far between. After a tournament that saw ups and downs, Michigan will head home with a 2-1 record and plenty of interesting storylines to monitor:
Eli Brooks grabs hold of the point guard battle
After the freshman played a career-high 17 minutes — and the majority of crunch time — against LSU on Tuesday, Brooks earned his first career start Wednesday against Chaminade. He earned the nod yet again in the tournament finale. The offense seemed to operate at a different pace with Brooks at the helm. The best shooter of the three point guards, Brooks also has the most experience playing off the ball, as he played shooting guard during his senior year of high school. That experience could be the deciding factor for an offense that is increasingly reliant on three Wolverines (redshirt sophomore Charles Matthews, junior Moritz Wagner and senior Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman) to create off the dribble.
Though the minutes distribution at the point guard position remains inconsistent, Beilein seems to have taken a liking to Brooks, given that Michigan has responded well with him on the floor.
When Brooks came in during the second half against LSU, the Wolverines went on a 10-0 run. The ball moved crisply, shooters found their rhythm and they hit the Tigers on the fast break unlike at any other point this year. It was their best stretch of the season. And yet, the most telling part of the weekend may have come when Brooks turned the ball over with 1:14 left to play, leading to the go-ahead bucket.
Instead of shying away after a crucial freshman mistake, Beilein gave Brooks the reigns the next day. Then again the day after.
While each point guard has his flaws, Brooks may elevate the team’s potential the most down the road; his youth — and room for growth — is an asset in itself. He has more natural offensive skill than sophomore Zavier Simpson and is less ball-dominant than fifth-year senior Jaaron Simmons. Simmons, the once-presumed starter, has struggled to adjust to Beilein’s system and playing without the basketball. He is shooting 17 percent from the field in his lowest minutes total (11.8 per game) since his freshman season at Ohio. While it still may eventually be Simmons’ job to lose, Brooks is making that previously inevitable outcome more doubtful each time he takes the court.
“Big Jon” Teske earns his nickname
Here’s something I bet you didn’t expect to see this season: Jon Teske is shooting 92 percent from the field.
Sample size be damned.
It would have been hard to blame you for digesting Beilein’s go-to nickname for Teske (“Big Jon”) with a dose of sarcasm at the beginning of the year. After all, he made only one field goal and grabbed seven rebounds all of last season.
But so far this year, Teske has taken the backup center minutes and run with them, averaging 15.4 points and 11.8 rebounds per 36 minutes, and playing, well, big. The sophomore has even showcased a few viable post-up moves offensively. Simply by being in the lane, the 7-foot, 250-plus-pound center forces other teams to reconsider their ability to finish in the lane, which is an effect teams do not have to take into account with junior Moritz Wagner occupying that spot.
Teske’s breakout performance has forced Beilein to consider two-big lineups, which previously would have seemed sacrilegious for a coach who preaches spacing and shooting. Those lineups would surely have to come in ideal situations — ones against opponents who play two traditional bigs (an increasing rarity in college basketball nowadays). There are detractions to those lineups, though, mostly on the defensive end. Wagner would struggle to guard most opposing power forwards. But with his defensive value — coupled with newfound offensive production — Teske will be hard to keep off the court, even accounting for the small-lineup tendencies Beilein has long preferred.
Charles Matthews breaks out
If the exhibition performance against North Florida was Charles Matthews’ welcoming showcase, Maui was the stamp of validation.
In three games in Maui, Matthews averaged 20.3 points per game, including a perfect 8-for-8, double-double performance in Michigan’s blowout win over Chaminade. Matthews silenced questions about his shot selection and passing ability, combining with Wagner on the pick-and-roll for some of the Wolverines’ most effective offense. If they play off him or go under the screen, the 6-foot-6 guard has proven more than capable of elevating and making a mid-range jumper. If the attack him, Matthews has found Wagner on the roll with regularity.
So far this season, Matthews is up to a near 2:1 assist to turnover ratio, a priority for Beilein and his staff coming into the year, who said the coaching staff has charted his assists and turnovers since the day he stepped on campus. In his short stint at Kentucky, Matthews totaled 19 turnovers and 10 assists during the entirety of his freshman season. With a multi-faceted offensive game, and an elite ability to slash through the lane and grab offensive rebounds like few Wolverines in recent history, it’s not hard to pigeonhole Matthews as the most important key to the Wolverines’ season.