On Tuesday, intentional or not, each half of basketball represented a different plan of attack — and with it, different identities of the Michigan men’s basketball team.
During a hard-fought 79-69 win against Creighton (1-1 overall), the Wolverines (2-0) used nearly every weapon they had in their arsenal, but switched its strategy as the game carried on.
In the first half, the 3-point shot was the saving grace for the offense.
To kick things off against the Bluejays, Michigan let it fly early and often. The Wolverines went 7-for-16 from deep throughout the half and were not shy about announcing their plan of attack. Leading this offensive barrage from 3-point land was junior forward Isaiah Livers who hit four from downtown, three in the first half alone and finished the night with a career-high 22 points.
Whether it was in transition or a product of senior guard Zavier Simpson driving to the hoop and finding an open man in the corner, the 3-point shot was instrumental to Michigan’s offense in the first half — closing out the first 20 minutes down, 38-41.
The first half was also characterized by clean basketball. The Wolverines fouled just three times and turned the ball over on four occasions — a trend that would largely carry the whole game with Michigan committing just seven fouls and 11 turnovers all game. This play represents a marked departure from its season opener where the Wolverines handed the ball to their opponents 17 times.
In the second half, play from the big men dominated.
The hot hands would cool down in the final 20 minutes in favor of Michigan’s clear size advantage. In the second half, the Wolverines attempted as many threes as they made in the first.
With the change in attack brought more deliberate possessions. The guards fed senior center Jon Teske in the post who led the team with 12 points and finished the night with 17. Further shaping this tact, Simpson found success near the basket due to relentless drives to the hoop and an unmatched ability to finish.
Now, there is just one simple question to answer: Was this strategy intentional?
The answer, almost certainly, is no.
It is hard to question the idea that Michigan wanted to control the post early against the Bluejays — a team who only had one player over 6-foot-8.
While Michigan coach Juwan Howard may feed lines about how the team is always looking for the best shot and that the open man is going to dictate that offensive possession, in the context of this game, it’s not always applicable. Take this one, for example.
“We always try to get the best shot possible whether it’s the first or second half,” Howard said. “Overall, we want to make sure that we establish a balanced basketball game so that we can compete.”
The Wolverines were able to find that balance — and their ideal shot selection — in the second half due to the re-establishment of its big men, the change of fortune for 50/50 balls and an increased defensive intensity.
In the game, Creighton outscored Michigan on second chance points, 13-4, with most of these looks coming in the first 20 minutes. At the break, the emphasis from Howard pointed to transition defense and two tenants of play down low — offensive rebounding and defense around the basket.
“We got backdoored a lot,” Livers said. “I got backdoored once, (junior guard Eli Brooks) got once, (sophomore guard David DeJulius) once, and it’s just small plays like that for an easy two is gonna be troublesome because I feel like we’re gonna be like, ‘Damn, we just got a stop, we forgot about the backdoor.’ It was just the little things we gotta clean up.”
Perhaps in a different game against a different team, these lapses on the defensive end cost Michigan the game.
In this instance, though, the Wolverines were lucky that shots were falling from deep or else they would have been staring down a much larger deficit.
But when it comes down to figuring out what changed at the half-way point in the contest, Livers claims that it all comes down to remembering what this team is all about.
“We kinda just treated it like it was practice,” Livers said. “Our scout team did a tremendous job all week of running their offense, and I guess we were overthinking it in the first half. Just things you do in basketball, and you come together and get that speech from coach Howard, things are gonna come out clicking.”