If Jon Teske scooped up a loose ball on defense and threw an outlet pass to Zavier Simpson at this time last year, the Michigan basketball team would’ve happily settled into its half court offense.
But under first-year head coach Juwan Howard, settling into the half court offense is a last resort. In Friday night’s 82-51 exhibition victory over Saginaw Valley State, that much was obvious.
Instead of waiting for his teammates to catch up, Simpson turned the corner, took a dribble and set his sights on the rim. As he charged through midcourt at full speed, he noticed junior forward Isaiah Livers slashing along the baseline from the opposite wing. With only one defender between them, Simpson lobbed a pass to his running mate from well beyond the 3-point line.
Livers took care of the rest. He caught the pass at its peak and flushed down the alley-oop with two hands.
On defensive rebounds and inbounds passes, the Wolverines wasted little time finding their senior point guard. At times, long outlet passes stretched as far as the halfcourt line. Rather than coming back for the ball, Simpson sparked the fast break. If the numbers were on his side, he began the downhill charge; if they weren’t, he kicked the ball out.
“(Howard) wants to run,” Livers said. “If we get stops, we better reward ourselves. … It’s just the adjustment of, you get a steal and there’s two guys ahead of you, you’re like, ‘Ah, I’m gonna hold off.’ That’s how it used to be. Coach Howard’s implemented you get up to that half court and you get to that free throw line and then you make your decision of if you’re going to pull it out or go. ‘Just be a basketball player,’ that’s what he tells us.”
Under former coach John Beilein, pulling it out meant falling into the halfcourt offense. After waiting for all five guys to cross halfcourt, Michigan often initiated some sort of pick and roll or off-ball screening action.
That’s no longer the case.
Howard wants this offense to win games in transition. In an uber-athletic Big Ten conference, slashing to the rim for layups and dunks on every fastbreak isn’t a realistic option. If the primary read isn’t there, the next best uncontested mid-range jump shot or 3-pointer will suffice in Howard’s NBA-style ideology.
“Coach Beilein liked quick shots if they were wide open, and Coach Howard likes quick shots, but smart quick shots, not a contested shot,” Livers said. “I took a lot of contested shots that he wasn’t happy with, and I just made the adjustments in the second half. I think we did a lot better job of being more smart … in transition.”
Added Howard: “There were times we could’ve made an extra pass to an open man that was located on the 3-point line. If you’re open, I want our guys to shoot it. I don’t want them to have a second guess or think the game and play like robots. I just want them to read the game, read time and possession.”
Against the Cardinals, Simpson read the floor better than anybody. His 11 game-high assists guided the Wolverines in transition and dictated their offense off the dribble in a halfcourt setting. When Michigan suffered through a seven-minute first-half stretch without making a field goal, Simpson’s absence was no coincidence.
While it’s clear that the Wolverines have an ideal pace in mind, their shot selection remains a work in progress.
“I thought there were times when we let them off the hook and settled for too many jumpers,” Howard said. “I thought there were times when we played off the ball screen and sort of overdribbled instead of making a move to the basket or using the screen. I thought there were times when we missed our bigs in the post when the guy had their man on his back and we didn’t deliver the basketball to him.”
But when the conversation shifted to his team’s speed in transition, Howard couldn’t keep a subtle smile from creeping across his face.
“Overall, I do like the fact that we attacked the basket when we saw there was an opening,” Howard said, “or when we saw there was a mismatch.”