With the ball in his hands, Eli Brooks’ eyes lit up.
Picking up his dribble, the freshman guard saw a wide-open Charles Matthews on the perimeter. Brooks did what any smart distributor would, and made the pass.
But North Florida’s Garrett Sams saw the play coming, and broke toward the ball to collect the Wolverines’ eighth turnover of the night. Seconds later, a frustrated Moritz Wagner swatted at Sams’ dribble from behind. A scrum ensued, and Wagner was called for a foul. It was a sequence of ugly basketball.
That was the theme for most of the Michigan basketball team’s season-opening victory over the Ospreys. The Wolverines simply didn’t look like a well-oiled machine Saturday night.
“We’re still feeling it out,” Wagner said. “There’s so many new guys trying to make an impression – who are making an impression. That’s gonna be part of the growing pains.”
The box score is proof of those growing pains. Thirty minutes in, Michigan found itself tied to a team it was supposed to rout – North Florida suffered a 32-point loss to Michigan State the night before.
A big reason for the close nature of the game was Michigan’s inability to control the opposition’s frontcourt. North Florida routinely forced its way into the lane, scoring 24 points in the paint. And considering the Ospreys’ lack of size, the Wolverines’ slim 36-34 rebounding advantage shows there is even more work to be done inside.
Fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson, meanwhile, attributes Michigan’s slow start to a spell of overconfidence.
“Part of the issue was we just kinda expected to go out there and run them over,” Robinson said. “You can’t do that. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing.
“That’s a sign of an immature team. I don’t think we’re an immature team. I think we gotta be better. I think we just had a lapse.”
Inexperience could be a factor in that lapse. The Wolverines, after all, have three new starters this season and their rotational bench is comprised entirely of freshmen and sophomores.
That occasionally showed in Michigan’s attack against the Ospreys’ 2-3 zone, which forced the Wolverines into 10 total turnovers.
“That action is very hard for (the freshmen) and even our sophomores to understand,” Beilein said. “For all these guys, it was hard to understand, but we got better as the game went on.”
Youth aside, however, Beilein has acknowledged that his teams usually have slower starts. Last year, Michigan was mediocre early and finished with a Sweet 16 trip.
The first 30 minutes of Saturday’s game show that this season could follow a similar trajectory.
“I expect adversity early, and then I expect to grow from it,” coach John Beilein said. “We’re going to have this mindset right now, that we’re going to go this way, but we’re really – we’ve got a lot of work to do. Really a lot of work to do.”
Added Wagner: “We’re a young team. (Struggles) are no surprise, so I have a no problem stumbling in the beginning a little bit. But when it comes to March, we’re ready.”