Terrance Williams reaches one arm up to the basket for a layup at Madison Square Garden.
Kate Hua/Daily. Buy this photo.

NEW YORK — The self-coined identity of the Michigan men’s basketball team has boiled down to just one word: versatility.

But in a win over St. John’s, the unquestioned leader of the Wolverines was established as sophomore guard Dug McDaniel — Michigan’s only player limited to just one position. Rather than allow themselves to be limited by McDaniel’s inflexibility, the versatility of his teammates and McDaniel’s recognition of that versatility instead formed a potent attack.

While the Wolverines wanted the ball in McDaniel’s hands every possession, they worked to alleviate pressure by threatening with players who could score from anywhere in the half court. 

McDaniel was masterful in breaking down the defense, but Michigan’s offense became more dynamic as the weapons opened up for him. And that came from both wing players and more traditional bigs alike, both equipped with the willingness and confidence to move the ball around and take quality shots when fed the ball. Even sophomore forward Tarris Reed Jr. tried his hand at a shot from beyond the arc. While it bounced heavily off the rim, it epitomized the Wolverines’ commitment to playing less position-focused basketball.

“They shoot it sometimes at four and even five positions when they sub,” St John’s coach Rick Pitino said. “That’s a difficult team to guard if they get by you.”

The flexibility of the lineup didn’t stop with its starters. That flexibility, in fact, was amplified by the Wolverines’ ability to bring in substitutes to replace anybody except McDaniel. 

Redshirt sophomore forward Will Tschetter served as the sixth-man, replacing Reed at the ‘5’ after the first media timeout. But Tschetter didn’t fill Reed’s role, proven by his single rebound compared to Reed’s 11. Rather the entire lineup adjusted to the role Tschetter brings. Graduate forward Olivier Nkamhoua began crashing the boards more frequently, complementary to Tschetter’s threats from deep.

And while Tschetter missed his first 3-pointer of the year in the first half, going 0-for-2, he operated within the system, allowing McDaniel to flourish — keeping defenders glued to the perimeter shooters and opening driving lanes.

“I think (the offense) is definitely a lot more free flowing,” senior forward Terrance Williams II said. “ … I feel like this year we can do a lot of stuff with a lot of different players and a lot of different lineups because (of) how versatile we are, how athletic we are.”

To open the second-half scoring and pile the lead to 12, Michigan continued to expose St. John’s fright to its ‘1’-through-’5’ ability to shoot. The Wolverines set up a double screen, and with defenders subject to being beaten from beyond the arc, McDaniel had a wide open lane to the basket that he drove into and laid it in.

While Michigan preferred to surround McDaniel with its starters, the strength in its versatility was exemplified when foul trouble forced it to reach into its depth.

“Olivier gets two fouls and Will Tschetter gets two fouls and Tray Jackson gets two fouls (in the first half),” associate head coach Phil Martelli said. “But we look like we had more than just seven and a half guys (who) played tonight. Looks like more than that, because they play multiple positions.”

As all three players reached the cliff with four fouls a piece, the Wolverines’ frontcourt became revolving. And while the play of each was marked by unique tendencies, they adapted. Whether it be opening up for corner 3-pointers or making baseline cuts, the frontcourt trusted McDaniel to lead them. And together Michigan’s offense worked to drum the Red Storm to the tune of 89 points.

So while McDaniel’s career night got the spotlight, make no mistake about it, the Wolverines’ versatility built the stage for him to perform on.