NEW YORK — It’s easy to imagine why the Michigan men’s basketball team could have been overwhelmed.
Playing its first road game of the season, against a revitalized power-conference opponent and in an iconic venue like Madison Square Garden, nerves were easy to come by for the Wolverines. Michigan coach Phil Martelli even emphasized leading up to the game that the Wolverines couldn’t let the stage sink them.
Michigan felt those jitters at times. But stabilized by strong guard play from graduate Nimari Burnett and sophomore Dug McDaniel, the Wolverines (3-0 overall) stormed past St. John’s (1-1) in the Gavitt Tipoff Games on Monday, 89-73.
“Their backcourt dominated our backcourt,” Red Storm coach Rick Pitino said. “They played intelligent basketball, and we did not. … They played as a team that’s in January and we played as a team in early November.”
Other than a first-possession three by Burnett however, early on Michigan played like the bright-eyed team that Martelli warned about rather than Pitino’s January version. In the first 10 minutes alone, the Wolverines turned the ball over six times and gave up four offensive rebounds. The Red Storm took advantage of those mistakes, often converting them to wide open 3-pointers, each backed by a mounting eruption from a friendly crowd.
With the bright lights of the Garden beating down, and the fans roaring, Michigan could have slipped, never establishing its presence in the contest.
Yet for every St. John’s blow, Burnett jabbed back. Whether he fought through a defender to finish tough at the rim or created space at the perimeter to drain a three, Burnett scored 15 of the Wolverines first 16 points to keep them in the game, allowing them to find their footing in the process.
Asked how Michigan constructed its foothold in the contest, Martelli answered bluntly.
“Nimari Burnett,” Martelli said. “He had 21 points in the first half. Now think about this: He had zero points the other night against Youngstown State. He comes out, stays calm, plays an older game and raises up and takes a shot. … We settled in because Nimari settled in.”
With Burnett guiding the way, Michigan started to take control. Burnett’s early individual scoring outburst gave way to more widespread contributions, and over the final six minutes of the first half, the Wolverines turned a 31-29 deficit into a 48-38 lead entering the break.
When graduate forward Oliver Nkamhoua picked up his third foul just two minutes into the second half, however, Michigan started to play frantically once again. Without one of their captains on the floor, the Wolverines momentarily looked discombobulated — exacerbated by a St John’s full-court press.
Just as Burnett composed them in the first half, though, McDaniel did in the second. He often single-handedly broke the press, driving to the basket for an easy layup or drawing a foul. And as the Red Storm began to focus more energy on him, he turned the attention to his teammates, racking up seven assists to go with six rebounds and a career-high 26 points.
“We were dominated by a point guard,” Pitino said. “And when he wasn’t scoring, he was finding open people, so our rotations weren’t there.”
With McDaniel and Michigan poised, St. John’s became frenetic. The Red Storm picked up six fouls in less than four minutes, hacking the Wolverines in hopes of mounting a comeback. But a 10-point lead turned into 15, even 26 at one time, and St. John’s never reclaimed the momentum that Michigan’s guards took away from it.
The Wolverines didn’t settle in right away, and they fluctuated away from stability at points. But Burnett settled in from tip-off, McDaniel kept them composed and together, the backcourt led Michigan to a dominant non-conference road win.