Throughout the first 10 games of the season, the Michigan men’s basketball team has displayed just about everything. It has come back late after sluggish starts and melted down after strong ones. It has played down to inferior opponents and hung with some of the top teams in the country.
On Wednesday, the Wolverines have another opportunity to play up to a strong opponent, facing North Carolina at the Jumpman Invitational. And with it, they get one of the final chances to test their defense in non-conference play.
With only one starter returning for Michigan this season, it faced the arduous task of rebuilding its lineup seemingly from scratch. As the Wolverines have worked to mold into a team, there have been some growing pains — specifically on the defensive end.
“(Playing with four new starters is) a process,” junior center Hunter Dickinson said after the win against Ohio Nov. 20. “… It’s a learning curve for everyone out there, just trying to get them up to speed on everything. But they’re trying really hard, and that’s something you can take away always, the effort.”
But effort only means so much, and at some point, Michigan needs to convert that on the court. Against the Tar Heels, it can show that.
UNC is a difficult adversary to do so against, though. After making it to the championship game in last year’s NCAA Tournament, all five of its starters opted to return. That quintet’s experience and basketball IQ presents a challenge for the Wolverines’ less experienced squad.
Michigan’s two strongest showings this season — despite both resulting in losses — came against Virginia and Kentucky. They’ve proven they can compete with high-caliber opponents. In those contests, its defense looked much more succinct.
“I think this game (against Virginia) we had all five guys really locked in on defense,” Dickinson said after the loss to Virginia Nov. 29. “… I think we did a really good job and made a big step in that discipline of locking in on every possession.”
While the Wolverines have shown flashes of potential, against non-Power Five teams, their inabilities on the defensive end have been glaring at times. Michigan currently ranks 244th among all Division-I teams in opponent scoring, allowing 71.3 points per game. That abhorrent number is a byproduct of insufficient defensive intensity. On the perimeter, lackluster guarding has enabled penetration from opposing ball handlers.
Those struggles allowed Eastern Michigan to score 83 points and go toe-to-toe with the Wolverines. They allowed Ohio to force overtime after a buzzer-beater second-chance layup. They allowed Lipscomb to take a lead in the dying minutes of its most recent game. While Michigan managed to scrape by in all three of those contests, each close game showed its need for defensive improvement going forward.
If it wants to compete with the Tar Heels’ dynamic offense, everyone on the court needs to play strong defense as a unit. That’s something the Wolverines have had trouble with so far this season, though.
“I think it’s just a mental thing,” Bufkin said Nov. 20. “We’ve got to come out (with) higher energy on defense. I feel like it will change coming here soon, for sure.”
But that was a month ago, and the Wolverines seem to still be a work in progress. Against UNC, they get one more chance to tap into a higher energy before rigorous conference play starts.
And if Michigan plays as one defensive unit, it has an opportunity to do more than flash potential — it can add a quality win to its resume.