Friday afternoon, John Beilein walked into Crisler Center’s media room and offered a warning.
“I know you say Holy Cross hasn’t been good for years,” he started, “They’re about to become really good. … They got four shooters and they got a great center who can really pass … and block shots. If you ever even have tried to guard a Princeton-type offense, they take the rules of basketball and change them for you. So you have to know your rules. And a couple of our young kids, their heads are ready to explode right now.”
That’s far from abnormal — Beilein will find something to compliment in every team, no matter how bad. But 10 minutes into Saturday night’s game, the coach looked like a prophet.
Buoyed by a scoring spurt from forward Connor Niego, the Crusaders broke off a 13-0 run to go up 18-9 heading into the under-12 media timeout. That’s when Beilein went small, subbing off redshirt sophomore center Austin Davis for freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis — meaning sophomore forward Isaiah Livers would man the ‘5.’
Livers played at the ‘5’ for a few short spurts last season — maybe 20 minutes on aggregate. Friday, Davis and fellow center Jon Teske played a combined 24 minutes. Save for a couple minutes of garbage time in the Wolverines’ eventual 56-37 win, Livers was in that spot for the rest of the way.
As for those 18 points Holy Cross scored in the first 10 minutes? The Crusaders scored 19 points the rest of the way.
“The kid (Niego) was on fire, and I said we try to prepare for about everything and there’s a hundred things they can do,” Beilein said. “And we probably had 40 or 50 we had either guarded in practice, not great, but we had done it. We weren’t ready for that. So just being able to do that simplified thing. We just switched everything.”
The suggestion to do so came from assistant coach Luke Yaklich, who coordinates the Wolverines’ defense. Being able to switch everything, the thinking went, would mitigate much of the actions associated with the Crusaders’ Princeton offense.
That played out, in full. The second half was a defensive bloodbath, as Michigan forced nine turnovers, holding Holy Cross without a 3-pointer and to 6-of-30 shooting from the field. Not one of those made shots came outside the paint.
It’s no secret that the Wolverines will need to win with defense, just as they did last season. This is how you win with defense.
“Isaiah’s a big guy, I’m a big guy, Charles (Matthews) is a big guy,” Brazdeikis said. “So we can rebound the ball pretty well. So — and staying in front of them wasn’t an issue at all, I feel like. So, having all five of us rebound the ball and push the ball on offense really slowed them down.”
Livers probably won’t ever be the guy offensively, especially on a team featuring Brazdeikis and Matthews, two players who can carry the load and did on Saturday. He earned a starting spot last year and kept it even as his play seemed to slip after an ankle injury.
Michigan appears ready to reap the rewards of that now.
“He’s a freak athlete,” Matthews said. “So, we just see his athletic abilities right now. He’s extremely skilled. He might not be able to show it off, cause we have a lot of players that — I don’t want to say ball-dominant — get a lot of the possessions. But Isaiah’s an extremely skilled player. And he adds a dimension to this team like no other.”