Balance propels Michigan to early-season success

Sunday, December 1, 2019 - 6:50pm

Senior center Jon Teske causes problems for opposing offenses and defenses.

Senior center Jon Teske causes problems for opposing offenses and defenses. Buy this photo
Alexis Rankin/Daily

Rarely does one aspect of a team’s game, or one individual, typically lead a team to prolonged success. In the current NBA, that list begins and ends with LeBron James. Instead, teams look to find a particular element across its identity: balance.

For the Michigan men’s basketball team, this is certainly the case. Finding the balance between dominant play down low and prolific shooting from beyond the arc is the name of the game, and, when on display, can lead the Wolverines to new heights as seen in their win in the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament.

Above all, it was Michigan’s balance that allowed it to find success against some of the top programs in the nation and walk away from the Bahamas with a trophy and two top-10 wins. Balance between the dominant play from their bigs and the lights-out shooting from the guards. Balance between transition plays and more elaborate offensive sets. Balance across the roster.

This sought-after balance is demonstrated up and down the stat sheet, starting with the shot distribution from Michigan, and the scoring that comes after.

In the game against No. 8 Gonzaga, the Wolverines shot 22-for-40 (55 percent) from inside the arc and 12-for-23 (52 percent) beyond it. Highlighting each side of Michigan’s play were senior center Jon Teske and junior forward Isaiah Livers. Teske scored at will in the low post, notching 19 points, while Livers let it fly from deep, connecting on five 3-pointers on his way to a team-high 21 points. 

This differing mindset on offense is demonstrated in back-to-back possessions in the middle of the first half against the Bulldogs. First, bringing the ball up the court, senior guard Zavier Simpson got a screen from Livers, who rolled above the defender to an open space beyond the 3-point line. Simpson kicked the ball over to the junior, who then drilled a 3-pointer with 20 seconds to go on the shot clock.

On the ensuing offensive position, after a flurry of off-ball movement including a few off-ball screens, Simpson called for a screen. Patiently waiting at the top of the key, Simpson got Teske to square up the defender, then took the ball to the basket and banks a hook shot off the glass with single digits on the shot clock.

For now, Michigan has been using its abundance of size, particularly at the ‘4’ and ‘5’ positions, to maintain this offensive balance, with the 7-foot-1 Teske proving an increasingly insurmountable challenge for opposing offenses and defenses.

Aside from just the starters, the Wolverines’ depth — another form of balance — has lent itself handily to the offense Michigan would most like to run: a mix of spread ball-screen processions, back-to-the-basket play from the bigs and quick, open shots on the outside.

In the first game of the tournament, against Iowa State, Teske found himself in foul trouble early, prompting sophomore center Colin Castleton and senior center Austin Davis to see increased minutes. At 6-foot-11, Castleton has the ability to nearly perfectly fill 7-foot-1 Teske’s presence on the floor, further evidenced by the sophomore’s 10 points in 17 minutes.

“I just gotta stay out of foul trouble,” Teske told reporters Friday. “I got two quick ones, and they called those calls, so be it. But we trust in the backup bigs to come in and do their jobs, and you saw in that first game, Colin and Austin did a tremendous job of stepping up, and we always say, ‘Next man up.’ We saw the next man up in that game, and that really helped us.”

While having balance across the shot selection, offensive sets and even the roster helped the Wolverines walk away from the Atlantis resort with a new piece of hardware, the effort required particular individual performances to shine above the rest. The difference for Michigan, though, was that these outings seemingly came from a new face every night.

And that is what may help the Wolverines add to the trophy case later this season.