Michigan started uneasily. Reflections of losses to Seton Hall and Arizona swirled around the arena.
Meaningless fouls and unnecessary gaffs galore, it looked to be another disappointing outing from a team that had such high expectations heading into the season.
Eventually, the No. 20 Michigan men’s basketball team (4-2 overall) managed to pull away on Wednesday night, overcoming those gaffs to take down Tarleton State (1-5), 65-54.
“I think (Tarleton State) really got up into guys, as well as pressure to passing lanes,” freshman forward Caleb Houstan said.
The Wolverines were flat-out messy off the tip. A strong press from the Texans flustered Michigan’s entire offense, resulting in turnovers on its first three possessions. It didn’t improve much for most of the first half, with the two teams battling back and forth for command of the lead.
Yet rather than two adept teams taking strikes at one another for control, it was more a game of who didn’t make a mistake with the ball rather than what team would make a play.
The Wolverines’ turnovers were highlighted by a swath of misplaced passes and, again, two unnecessary fouls by graduate transfer guard DeVante’ Jones that put him in early foul trouble. Tarleton State, on the other hand, simply couldn’t make its shots, giving up the opportunities presented to it.
“Although it’s great to have DeVante’ on the court, I think even though he got into foul trouble we had a lot of guys off the bench who really stepped up and showed what they could do,” Houstan said.
This showed when Michigan appeared to shake some of its struggles around the five-minute mark. With just a one-point lead, the Wolverines went on a 10-2 run to close the half at 31-22. The spark was fueled by freshman guard Frankie Collins and fifth-year guard Eli Brooks each bagging a 3-pointer to get it started. Big men Moussa Diabate and Hunter Dickinson closed it out with a layup and jumper for the freshman and sophomore, respectively.
The second half opened about as sloppy as the first, though, snuffing out the possibility for the Wolverines to pull away. They tacked on six more turnovers by the halfway point for a total of 17. Tarleton State, still, could not capitalize, shooting a lowly 33.9% from the field on the day.
“Some of the passes that we were making were, I would say in a respectful way, mindless; forcing,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said.
Beyond that, Michigan was bailed out numerous times by its freshmen. For the first time this year, Houstan made his shots when the team needed it, going 4-for-7 from the field with 14 points and 10 rebounds for his first collegiate double-double. Diabate had his own contributions as well, notching 14 points and seven rebounds, three of which came on the offensive side of the ball.
But heading into the final minutes, Tarleton State finally hit its shots, closing the gap to just three and putting the Wolverines in real danger of a loss. It was all a result of repeated turnovers, unnecessary fouls and plain mental lapses from the Michigan side.
“We were forcing (passes) into traffic, and that can’t happen,” Howard said. “In any lead that you play in versus any opponent. So, you know, there’s always teachable moments. And I think that was a teachable moment for us.”
Though it wasn’t pretty, finishing with 21 turnovers, the Wolverines were able to close out the game thanks to the sheer talent gap on the floor.
That gap won’t always be there, though.