Coming off a three-game stretch in which the Michigan men’s basketball team topped 80 points twice — including against No. 2 UCLA — Central Arkansas would need a major defensive effort to slow down the Wolverines on Tuesday night.
But with a zone defense that gives up more 3-pointers than just about any defense in the country (43.8% of shot attempts), the Bears had a major blind spot instead. And Michigan took full advantage. Hitting a program-record 19 threes out of a program-record 45 attempts — a 42.2 percent success rate — the Wolverines easily dispatched Central Arkansas, 93-57.
With a sizable lead for almost the entirety of the game, Michigan coach John Beilein had a rare opportunity to test out the progress of two of his key freshman additions: guard Xavier Simpson and forward Ibi Watson.
Neither played significant minutes, as Simpson had 18 and Watson had eight, but both contributed to the offensive barrage from beyond the arc with a 3-pointer apiece. For Watson, it was the first of his career and set the program record for made threes. For Simpson, it was the second of his career and he also added four free throws for a total of seven points.
Though the pair admitted that Beilein’s offense has given them a bit of trouble, they have been putting in long days filled with extra practice and video sessions in an effort to reach the level at which the Wolverines will need them to be.
“Since the last few weeks, it’s started to slow down and since the beginning of the season, it’s slowed down a lot but it’s still a process,” Watson said. “It’s still something that’s not easy to just get like that, so I’m just working as hard as I can to grasp the whole concept.”
Added Simpson: “At first it was pretty tough, I’m going to be honest. … Once you get the hang of it, it opens up a lot.”
While the bulk of their game action came in the second half with the outcome already decided, assistant coach Billy Donlon didn’t allow them to let up on the defensive side of the ball either. Michigan may have been up by 30 or 40 points at various stages, yet whenever they missed a switch or gave up an easy basket, Donlon lit into them.
Despite the fact that they were playing with the second unit in what is referred to as garbage time, Donlon held them to a higher standard, and the duo praised him for it.
“Coach Billy, he’s a very aggressive coach, but I love it,” Simpson said. “He’s on everyone’s tail every day about defense. If they can score negative points, he’ll probably like that.”
Added Watson: “It just shows the type of coach he is. It doesn’t matter what situation we’re in. … He’s always just looking to make you the best player you can be and that’s something we appreciate as a team.”
With just two games left before Big Ten play begins, Beilein knows he will need to bring his two young role players up to speed in a hurry. The Wolverines have grown accustomed to utilizing a short rotation of six or seven players in the early stages of the season, as Simpson and Watson’s development has been slower than expected.
“I’d like to get them in the next two games more, but we’re not gonna do it to sacrifice the win,” Beilein said. “If they’re getting beat out there defensively or they’re taking us out of the flow (then they will need to practice). … That’s a major focus for us right now.”
Given the strength of the Big Ten this year, Michigan’s starters and sixth men will likely run out of gas at certain points. And in those important minutes, it will be up to Simpson and Watson to steer the ship.