It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.
That refrain certainly rang true for the Michigan men’s basketball team (4-0) during Sunday’s 80-58 rout of Central Florida (1-1).
After surviving three tune-up games against low mid-major opponents, the Wolverines came out flat against the Knights, who had beaten Auburn in their only game of the season. Not only was Michigan’s defense incapable of preventing UCF’s guards from getting to the rim, but it struggled to crack the Knights’ 2-3 zone as well. Midway through the first half, UCF had built a double-digit lead off mainly layups. The Wolverines’ inability to hit perimeter shots worsened their early frustrations.
“I can tell you it was frustrating just to see the amount of shots they were making coming off ball screens,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “(We) had to make some adjustments with our ball-screen coverage. … There were some opportunities where they had some direct blow-by drives, when they were touching the paint too many times.”
The introduction of freshman duo Hunter Dickinson and Terrance Williams — at center and forward, respectively — changed the tide, sparking a 25-9 run from the 9:29 mark on. Thanks to their combined 16-point, six-rebound contribution in the first half, a rejuvenated Michigan took a 38-34 lead into the break.
“We have confidence in the second unit, of course,” Dickinson said. “We’re five guys who are very confident in ourselves. We know that when we go out there we can make an impact on the floor. We know we need the leadership from the first unit to help us out, but we’re also capable of making our own sparks coming in off the bench.”
The Wolverines’ newfound energy persisted into the second half as two driving buckets from sophomore wing Franz Wagner and a corner three from senior guard Eli Brooks increased their advantage to 10.
Defensively, Michigan also cleaned up its act in the second half. The Wolverines stayed in front of the Knights and forced them into taking jumpers rather than layups, which they had failed to do in the early going.
Despite senior forward Isaiah Livers, who entered the game as Michigan’s leading scorer, being held scoreless through the first 33 minutes, Michigan’s lead continued to balloon. Senior guard Chaundee Brown has compiled some up-and-down shooting performances to start the season — going 5-for-7 against Bowling Green and then 1-for-10 from deep against Oakland — but he caught fire in the second half. In a four-minute span, Brown knocked down three of his four 3-pointers on the day to put the game firmly out of reach.
“I realize that, playing this game for years, you’re not gonna have a good shooting night every night,” Brown said. “It’s the life of a shooter. But coach Howard told me just to keep shooting, keep shooting, keep shooting. Just having that confidence from a coach like that makes me stay aggressive and confident. I know I have a nice shot, they know I have a nice shot, I’ve been working all summer and all fall on it.”
In the end, it wasn’t close. Behind 47 points from its bench — led by Brown’s 18 and Dickinson’s 14 — the Wolverines overcame a sluggish start in dominant fashion. With one game remaining before Big Ten play starts, Michigan’s schedule will only increase in difficulty, and it will have to rely on the very same depth that spurred Sunday’s comeback.
“We have a very deep team,” Howard said. “Our thing is all hands on deck. And game by game, it’s always being evaluated on what’s giving us the best chance. But we’re gonna need everyone this season, it’s that simple.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.