The Michigan men’s basketball team kicked off its season this past weekend with two double-digit victories over Howard and IUPUI in the Ann Arbor regional of the 2K Classic.
Against Howard on Friday, the Wolverines struggled to deal with a matchup zone defense, a defense Michigan coach John Beilein said he had never seen in all his years of coaching. The Wolverines overpowered the Bisons, though, who ranked No. 328 in RPI last season and were missing James Daniel — the NCAA’s leading scorer last season — to an injury.
Sunday against IUPUI, Michigan strung together a 13-0 run to end the first half and went on to beat the Jaguars, 77-65.
The Wolverines will now travel to New York City to play in the 2K Classic Championship Round. Michigan will play Marquette on Thursday and either Southern Methodist or Pittsburgh on Friday. But until then, here are five things we learned from Michigan’s season-opening weekend.
1. DJ Wilson is legit
During Michigan’s media day back on Oct. 3, Beilein likened the redshirt sophomore forward’s potential to that of former Indiana forward Troy Williams, who now plies his craft in the NBA with the Memphis Grizzlies.
No one, however, was expecting to see a return on that statement so early in the season. Friday against Howard, Wilson was a force inside, grabbing eight rebounds and scoring nine points in 20 minutes of action. Wilson continued his solid play Sunday, notching career highs in rebounds and blocks with 14 and five, respectively.
“His mindset is to get in there and get rebounds, loose basketballs, everything,” Beilein said. “Defensively, last year, we couldn’t get him on the floor. Now he’s spent a year getting better. If he says to himself, ‘I am a rebounder and defender,’ he’ll get baskets.”
2. The battle between Donnal and Wagner is far from over
Going into the game against Howard, Beilein stated that sophomore forward Moritz Wagner would get the start. But by the end of the game, it was redshirt junior Mark Donnal who got the advantage in minutes, playing eight more than Wagner.
Sunday against IUPUI, Wagner got the start again, but Donnal was given ample playing time and both players were on the court for 19 minutes.
“I think both offensively and defensively, I just held my own and tried to be an energy guy of the bench,” Donnal said after Friday’s game.
Beilein now has a conundrum on his hands. While Wagner gives him a better offensive presence, he also also shows flashes of immaturity on defense. Against Howard, Wagner started the second half, but was taken out just seconds later for not picking up his guard on a ball screen.
Moving forward, Beilein may be forced to switch back and forth between his two big men at the ‘5’.
3. Michigan is playing more aggressively on defense
Assistant coach Billy Donlon came to the team as a defensive-minded coach, and that was evident during both games, when Donlon would get up from his seat to bark orders when Michigan was on the defensive end of the court.
This weekend, the Wolverines forced a total of 27 turnovers for an average of 13.5 per game, a far cry from the 7.5 turnovers Michigan forced per game last season. Granted, it is still early in the season and this year’s average comes from a small sample size, but there were still visible differences in the Wolverine defense from last season.
While Michigan was far more aggressive on the defensive end, it resorted to fouling at times. Fortunately for the Wolverines, Howard shot just 48 percent from the line.
4. The Wolverines are still relying heavily on the 3-point shot
Over the past several seasons, Michigan has put a heavy emphasis on its ability to shoot 3-pointers. This weekend, the Wolverines shot 35 percent from behind the arc.
More interesting, though, was how often Michigan shot the 3-ball. Forty percent of the Wolverines’ shots were from deep, which is in line with their performance last year, when 43 percent of their shots were 3-pointers.
5. Bold prediction: DJ Wilson starts over Duncan Robinson against Marquette
With how well Wilson has played in the first two games of the season, Beilein may be forced to start Wilson at the ‘4’. Against IUPUI, Wilson played 80 percent of the minutes in the second half, with redshirt junior Duncan Robinson to the bench for much of the stanza.
“DJ was playing well, and if Zak hadn’t come back, he would’ve played many more minutes,” Beilein said. “(Duncan’s) role will be varied. Does he start? Does he come off the bench? I love having a gunner come off the bench. He’s just gotta continue to embrace his role and keep working at his game. I love the idea that he comes off the bench with this free reign to shoot.”
Wilson still has plenty to work on, including being more aggressive on the offensive front. But with his length and size, Michigan has a better defensive option, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Wilson in the starting five on Thursday night in Madison Square Garden.