SportsMonday Column: A week to make believers
John Beilein has a theory. He’s just not entirely sold on it yet.
It came to light after his Michigan basketball team notched a 79-69 win over Illinois on Saturday afternoon. The victory, by Beilein’s own self admission, wasn’t pretty.
Redshirt sophomore wing Charles Matthews played 67 seconds in the first half due to foul trouble. Junior center Moritz Wagner didn’t fare much better, picking up two fouls of his own. The duo combined for three first-half points, and the Wolverines turned the ball over 12 times in the frame against an Illinois team that ranks sixth nationally in forced turnovers.
And yet, Michigan managed to right the ship anyway. Freshmen Jordan Poole and Isaiah Livers found themselves on the court with just under nine minutes left, turning in the game of their dreams. A 3-pointer, two dunks, an alley-oop and five free throws later, the Wolverines found themselves up by two — lucky to eventually exit the half trailing by three.
After the early foul trouble, Wagner and Matthews finally found sound footing, and the Wolverines outlasted a vaunted defensive unit to shoot 64 percent from the floor in the second half. Michigan finished with six players scoring in double digits, two of whom —Poole and Livers — came off the bench.
Quite simply, the Wolverines found a way to make a ramshackle unit survive long enough to win. The production, as it has all season, came from different characters in no logical order.
But with matchups against No. 13 Purdue and No. 1 Michigan State in the coming week, Beilein was asked if he wants to see one of his players become ‘the guy.’ His answer was illuminating.
“I think it’s important that those guys continue to establish a rhythm when everyone’s in a new role,” he said. “I don’t think it’s essential that they have to be stars for us to win, as you can see today. I think there’s enough guys out there that can make shots.”
Still, there was some doubt.
“That’s our hope,” he continued. “Now we’ll find out, and I’ll be a believer when I know that we’re rebounding and we’re better in the post defense. If we can beat the Purdues and the Michigan States, alright, then I’m gonna probably be a believer that we’re okay.”
Hope is the operative word, and therein lies the crux of this entire week. On paper, the Wolverines are okay, boasting 14 wins in 17 games.
Michigan, of course, has star power in Wagner and Matthews. Both can take over a game, though neither has on a consistent basis. The same fluctuations apply to Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson.
Poole and Livers, for their part, have shown an ability to fill in when those fluctuations cause trouble. In other cases, they’ve shown the opposite, though there has been more of the former as of late.
And Zavier Simpson, who started for the first time in 12 games Saturday, seems to be rounding out the bunch at point guard — though Beilein wouldn’t go as far to say his starting nod was a definitive answer.
This all goes to say that their collective identity, it appears, just may work out.
But now it’s time to find out for good.
Purdue will visit Crisler Center on Tuesday, providing the Wolverines with their first opportunity to notch a win over a top-25 team. Four days later, Michigan will seek its first road win over a top-ranked team in program history when it heads to East Lansing.
The Boilermakers’ Isaac Haas and Vincent Edwards await, while Miles Bridges is only the tip of the iceberg on a loaded Spartans roster.
The only team that Michigan has faced that can evenly remotely compare to the challenge ahead is North Carolina, which ran the Wolverines out of the gym.
The Wolverines have come a long way since that Nov. 29 matchup in Chapel Hill — winning eight of their last nine.
And after the most recent win, Illinois coach Brad Underwood seemed to confirm as much.
“That’s a really good Michigan basketball team,” he said. “They’ve proven that with who they’ve beat and who they played.”
Underwood, more than most, can offer a sound outsider’s perspective on where this team stands. The Wolverines beat his Oklahoma State team in the NCAA Tournament last year. Asked about how this iteration of Michigan compares to last year’s, Underwood pointed to the seemingly obvious.
“Well it starts at the point,” he said. “And I’m not downplaying Zavier or any of their other guys, but when we played them in the tournament, Walton was playing as well as any point guard in America. … But they’re a lot of the same characters, do the same things.”
“Characters,” it would seem, is an accurate noun for a Michigan team that has yet to see a star emerge. Beilein thinks those “characters” may just be enough, but isn’t sold just yet.
Which brings us back to this week.
The Wolverines have a chance to make some believers. Their coach included.
Santo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Kevin_M_Santo.