When the player you’ve tasked with guarding the 7-foot-1 center Jon Teske is a 195-pound freshman who’s half a foot shorter than him, you’re in trouble.
Poor Connor Withers watched the mammoth Teske come down the court and shred him on nearly every play to begin what amounted to an 86-60 victory for Michigan (10-3 overall, 1-1 Big Ten) over UMass Lowell (6-9).
When Teske came out for a rest with 12:46 left in the first half, he had made 5-of-6 shots, already with 11 points and four rebounds. All but six of the Wolverines’ 17 points at that point came from the Ohio native, who was everywhere for them offensively and defensively.
“That was definitely trying to set the tone with the interior play,” junior guard Eli Brooks said. “The first play was drawn up for him, so it was really trying to get him going early.”
He ended the day with 25 points and eight rebounds after playing just 25 minutes.
Part of his dominance came from the River Hawks’ respect for Michigan’s perimeter shooting — at one point, Brooks ran across the 3-point arc, drawing out three defenders to stop him from taking the 3-point shot. It worked, because Brooks found Teske with enough room for him to take a nap under the basket before he put away the easy layup.
Teske wasn’t the only big to experience success against the smaller team, the rest of the Wolverines’ size played at will against UMass Lowell — sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. muscled his way through a defender to turn and make an easy layup, sophomore forward Colin Castleton dominated the glass with nine rebounds.
“I wanted to take care of our size advantage as well as Johns’ skill level,” said Michigan coach Juwan Howard. “It hasn’t been a secret, this year I’ve been establishing him in the post to establish our inside-outside game, and today was a good day for the team with that game plan. To Johns’ credit he was very active out there, competed at a high level and was playing inspired basketball.”
With nine minutes left in the first half, Michigan’s bigs accounted for 17 of 27 of the Wolverines’ points, all of that with usual starting forward junior Isaiah Livers out indefinitely with a groin injury — replaced by Johns with Castleton being the first off the bench for him.
“I think they all did great filling in what we are missing. (Livers) brings fourteen points a game, he’s shooting 50 percent almost from the three point line,” Howard said. “… (Johns) came out and gave us the energy that we needed, competing like he does on both ends of the floor, he made the right decision with the basketball. (Castleton) came in and gave us the rebounding that we needed during those stretches.”
Sucking defenders in like a black hole, the Wolverines’ play under the basket opened up space for its smaller players to rain threes on the River Hawks. In the final nine minutes of the half, Michigan had just one field goal that wasn’t a 3-pointer.
The two facets of the Wolverines’ offense would combine in the second half, racing to expand their 17-point lead into a game-high 32 points ten minutes into the second half.
On the other side of the ball, Michigan’s defense smothered UMass Lowell, holding the River Hawks to just 32-percent shooting from the field in the first half.
“We try to push it back to the perimeter because they can’t score on the inside, that’s a really big thing, to try and close it out at the three point line,” Johns said. “We’ve been working on that a lot, closing out to the three point line, just not getting shots off outside.”
The only thing keeping the game respectable after the first half was UMass Lowell’s ability to cash in off the Wolverines’ eight turnovers, scoring 10 points off them and keeping the game within 17.
When the second half began, though, that avenue for points disappeared as Michigan was clinical with the ball in its hands, committing just six turnovers in the last 20 minutes.
It was clear since tip-off that Withers wasn’t the only player severely outmatched for the River Hawks, as every player who saw the court for the Wolverines found success.