The Michigan basketball team knew its early-season matchup against Creighton would be telling.
In the wake of a program-altering offseason that saw a head coaching change and the departure of three players that accounted for over half of the Wolverines’ offense last season, questions arose. On Tuesday night, Michigan (2-0) continued its search for answers in a 79-69 win against the Bluejays (1-1).
Those answers, as it turns out, are still a work in progress.
When first-year coach Juwan Howard was hired, it wasn’t a secret that the Wolverines were going to try their hand at an NBA brand of offense. As for what that means, exactly, Michigan has shown an emphasis on pushing the ball and generating 3-pointers thus far.
Against Creighton, not even Howard’s team’s overwhelming height advantage changed that approach. Thirteen of the Wolverines’ first 18 shots came from beyond the arc, a streak that culminated in senior point guard Zavier Simpson — a sub-30-percent career 3-point shooter — dropping his defender and draining a stepback triple.
In the early stages of the first half, Michigan looked like a well-oiled machine. But when the well went dry, frustration mounted. The Bluejays pounced on the Wolverines’ miscues, closing the half on an 18-7 run en route to a 41-38 advantage at the break. For Michigan, poor rebounding and sloppy turnovers erased an otherwise positive opening few minutes.
By the end of the first half, the Wolverines had been outscored in the paint, 24-10, against a team with only one healthy player taller than 6-foot-8. Even with three rotational big men taller than that, Michigan’s first free throws came over 18 minutes into the game, as it seldom attacked the rim.
From the look of the halftime box score, you’d think Creighton had the upper-hand in height given its 23-10 rebounding advantage. Though 10 of those boards came on the offensive glass, Michigan only surrendered six second-chance points.
“We have to crack back and not allow those (opposing) bigs to run in freely to get offensive rebounds,” Howard said, “because I’m asking (Teske) to go after shots and alter shots and not allow guys just to walk down the lane and score layups. Now, the players have to do a better job covering up for him by blocking guys out on rebounds and not allowing guys to fly in and get extra possessions.”
With prized freshman wing Franz Wagner on the shelf due to a wrist fracture, the Wolverines didn’t know who would create offense on their own. A week after junior guard Eli Brooks posted a career-high 24 in the season-opener and senior center Jon Teske chipped in 17, it was junior forward Isaiah Livers who answered the call against the Bluejays. He scored a career-high 22 points on 8-of-12 shooting, while Simpson and Teske each added 17 of their own.
“(Livers) made some big shots for us,” Howard said. “He’s a super confident player. For his height, he does a really good job of getting elevation on his jump shot. … I think he’s done a fantastic job of embracing (his role) because with the confidence and as well as how we’re going to lean on him from an offensive end and defensive end.”
Coming out of halftime, the Wolverines took control of the game’s pace. Simpson finished a pair of transition layups that helped Michigan open the stanza on an 8-2 run, while the Wolverines only attempted seven second-half threes after shooting 16 in the first.
Backed by an effort to get the ball to the interior, Michigan ultimately built its 8-2 spurt into a crucial 26-14 run and, most importantly, a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
By the time the final buzzer sounded, the halftime deficit felt like a mere afterthought. And with Livers, Simpson and Teske combining for 56 of the Wolverines’ 79 points against a Big East defense, so did the offensive load of last year’s early departures.
Tuesday night was far from a season-defining win, and Michigan’s most pressing questions will remain unanswered for another month or so. But after narrowly avoiding a crisis against Appalachian State, the Wolverines’ performance against a respectable Bluejays team sure could be a springboard to immediate success.