Almost a year to the date after the Wolverines’ upset loss to the New Jersey Institute of Technology following a huge win over Syracuse, Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein was fully aware his team could be set up for another letdown on Saturday.
Even after a hard-fought Big Ten/ACC Challenge road win Tuesday at North Carolina State — despite losing junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. to an ankle injury — Beilein no longer believes in “guarantee” games, especially without one of his key players.
Luckily for the Wolverines, Houston Baptist was no NJIT.
The Huskies turned the ball over 16 times, which led to 23 Michigan points, and shot just 43 percent from the floor. It was a far cry from NJIT’s spirited 59-percent shooting performance (including 11 3-ponters), and Houston Baptist fell well short of an upset in the 82-57 loss.
“Last year, we probably weren’t as mentally prepared for that game,” Beilein said. “Coming off (the Syracuse game), we hadn’t learned our lesson. … But give them credit, (NJIT) had a heck of a year. We lost to a really good team.”
Perhaps more importantly, the Wolverines aren’t the team they were a year ago.
Some things haven’t changed — senior guard Caris LeVert, who scored a career-high 32 points in the loss to NJIT, led Michigan against Houston Baptist with 25 points and eight rebounds. But this time around, LeVert’s teammates provided more than enough support to pick up a comfortable victory.
Redshirt sophomore guard Duncan Robinson continued his hot shooting streak, knocking down five of his nine 3-point attempts and finishing the game with 19 points. Sophomore guard Aubrey Dawkins, who has been sharing minutes with Robinson early in the season, had a strong shooting performance of his own with 16 points and three triples, making up for two costly first-half traveling calls.
The Wolverines certainly seemed to be playing with a different mindset than they were a year ago, jumping out to an 11-0 lead to start the game. In its strongest run of the afternoon, Houston Baptist cut the lead to 26-24 with 4:34 remaining in the first half before a LeVert trey and five straight points from Robinson pushed the lead back to 10.
With the NJIT loss still fresh in the minds of the coaching staff and most of the roster, Michigan decided it wasn’t going to make the same mistake in consecutive seasons.
“It was stressed from the time we got off the plane after beating N.C. State,” LeVert said. “We knew that this was the game we lost year, and we didn’t want to have the same feeling coming into it (this year). So we came out and played hard for a full 40 (minutes).”
Against NJIT, the Wolverines at least had the benefit of Walton’s presence in the starting lineup, though Beilein said he was a “different player” thanks to the toe injury that plagued him most of last season. Against Houston Baptist, because of his latest injury, Michigan couldn’t use Walton at all.
But the Wolverines didn’t miss him much Saturday, thanks to stellar play from LeVert as the lead guard and some quality fill-in minutes from sophomore guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, who scored six points in his 33 minutes, and senior guard Spike Albrecht, who memorably batted a loose ball toward redshirt freshman forward D.J. Wilson for a dunk late in the game.
Abdur-Rahkman and Albrecht — the latter still playing limited minutes as he recovers from two hip surgeries — may not have expected to get so much playing time just a week ago, but they were just as focused as anyone on avoiding a repeat of the NJIT disaster.
“We didn’t want to sleep on this team,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “We wanted to come out and play like they were a top-25 team.”