No. 11 North Carolina came into Ann Arbor this week boasting Nassir Little and Coby White, two of the best freshmen in the class of 2019, and Cameron Johnson, a graduate transfer from Pittsburgh who is shooting 46 percent from 3-point range.
And yet, according to coach John Beilein, the Michigan men’s basketball team spent two straight days leading up to Wednesday’s game talking about the Tar Heels’ third-leading scorer.
Of course, it would be an extreme disservice to call Luke Maye the Tar Heels’ third-leading scorer and just leave it at that. After averaging 16.9 points and 10.1 rebounds per game as a junior last season, Maye received third-team All-American honors and was named a preseason AP All-American this October.
More pertinent to Wednesday, though, was what Maye did when these same teams met last season. All night long, Maye bludgeoned defenders on the block, drove inside with physicality and carved up the Wolverines’ defense with his incisive passing. Maye dropped 27 points on 11-of-16 shooting, grabbed six rebounds and dished out three assists as North Carolina ran Michigan out of the Dean Smith Center.
“Luke Maye is a really tough matchup for us,” Beilein said after that game. “We’re playing really small with Duncan Robinson as a skinny-four man. This was really a bad matchup.”
But Maye, with his ability to stretch the floor and bang down low, is a tough matchup for just about anyone — even for Michigan, one of the best defensive teams in the nation.
The Wolverines seemed to have two main options against Maye: junior center Jon Teske and freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis. Both players had more than proven their worth on defense going into Wednesday, but both players seemingly had exploitable potential as well — Brazdeikis’ inexperience and lack of size (215 pounds to Maye’s 240), and the 7-foot-1 Teske being drawn out on the perimeter.
So despite Maye’s relatively pedestrian start this season — he entered Wednesday’s contest averaging 14.4 points and 8.6 rebounds per game while shooting four percent lower than he did as a junior — Michigan never shook the memory of Maye’s dominance.
“Let’s put it on me: Our ‘4’ man defense last year, we were not as good, we probably didn’t emphasize it enough and what we had to do with him,” Beilein said. “A guy like Luke is really tough to guard because he shoots, he can post, he can play with his back to the basket, and he can really pass. Going into that game we were really conscious of other elements of their game, and Luke just killed us.”
As the game began, it looked like he would kill the Wolverines once again, and Wednesday would merely be a repeat of last year in Chapel Hill.
The Tar Heels scored on each of their first three possessions, needing fewer than 10 seconds to do so each time. Maye hit his first three shots — two inside baskets and a deep 3-pointer — and had seven points within the game’s first six minutes.
However, the tide soon began to turn.
With 13:28 remaining in the first half, Maye caught a pass off a pick-and-pop with Teske over 10 feet away. Against many other seven-footers, it would have been an easy look. But not against Teske.
Teske sprinted to the wing as soon as he saw the ball heading Maye’s direction. After Maye pump-faked out of Teske’s initial contest, Teske turned around and went back up with his other arm as the shot went up — and off the front of the rim.
Maye’s next opportunity came four minutes later. With agility belying his giant frame, Teske stayed in front of Maye to get a hand up against his next shot, a stepback from the elbow, and force a miss.
Later, it was Brazdeikis’ turn. Following a North Carolina timeout three minutes into the second half, Maye darted around a solid screen with a wide-open, point-blank look awaiting him. Instead, Brazdeikis powered straight through the pick, closed out hard and leapt to contest as Maye’s jump hook went wide.
“I watch video on every single player that I’m going to play against, so I felt like I knew a lot of his moves,” Brazdeikis said. “He’s a great player. He’s still so hard to stop, and I was just doing the best I could.”
Michigan had no answer for Maye last year; the opposite was true Wednesday. Maye got to the basket at will one year ago; just three of his shots Wednesday came inside the paint. After a perfect start from the field, the ACC Preseason Player of the Year was 1-for-9 the rest of the way.
“Their defense has been really good,” said Tar Heels coach Roy Williams. “ … They have a sense of urgency on the defensive end. They’re hard to screen because they fight through the screens. They switch, they communicate and they get that done.”
Against North Carolina last season, Teske played just four minutes. Brazdeikis was still in high school. The Wolverines’ defensive identity had yet to take hold in earnest. It barely needs to be said that things are quite different now.
But in case it does need to be restated, Wednesday’s game — and the game 364 days before that — was about as good a statement as Michigan could make.