For better or worse, the Michigan men’s basketball team’s non-conference schedule has come to a close.
But with multiple wins like Saturday’s 76-51 romp over Jacksonville (5-11 overall) in their back pocket, it is hard to imagine that the Wolverines (1-1 Big Ten, 12-3) want to say farewell.
R&B group Boyz II Men knows this feeling all too well, even offering a neat summation of Saturday’s contest and the prior 14 games in their hit “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.”
How do I say goodbye to what we had?
Well, how could you? Sloppy play and frequent lineup adjustments were excusable against most of Michigan’s previous opponents after all.
The Wolverines began play against the Dolphins with their typical, patented start: slow. Michigan totaled 10 first half turnovers and 14 overall — a rarity for a team that averages just 9.6 turnovers per game. It was, perhaps, the type of careless play that will hurt the Wolverines against teams like Michigan State.
“That was unbelievable,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “… I think what they learned today is that it’s not as much fun when you don’t play efficiently and don’t score points. 10 turnovers — my goodness — in the first half, 10 empty opportunities.”
Jacksonville fared no better, hitting only one of its first 10 field goal attempts, including four airballs. But like many of its previous games, Michigan corrected course while the Dolphins did not. Jacksonville finished the half shooting an abysmal 8-for-31. The Wolverines’ 12-for-25 was nothing to smile about, but they had their second-best defensive half of the season to hold a 32-18 halftime edge.
“On the defensive end, I think we’re grasping that, I think we’re getting better,” said redshirt sophomore guard Charles Matthews. “And we’re understanding that’s how we really need to play our opponents on the floor throughout the season. I feel like everyone is buying in defensively.”
Even against conference cellar dwellers like Wisconsin or Illinois, all bets are off. Against a Jacksonville team missing its leading scorer and rebounder? You know where to put your money, regardless of slow starts.
The good times that made us laugh outweighed the bad.
Beilein was surely not pleased with how his team began, but many pleasant constants remained. Usual suspects like Matthews, Duncan Robinson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman led the scoring charge with 25 of the team’s 32 points at half. The trio totaled 50 points for the game, while the underclassmen managed just 19 points.
“There’s stuff that players do that don’t end up in the stat sheet,” Matthews said. “Them pressuring the ball, forcing them to get out of their offense. They may not get a steal for that, but they really disrupt their offense. We see that, and we understand stuff like that wins games. From a statistics standpoint, they probably didn’t have their best game, but they really impacted the game as well.”
In the second half, more familiarities emerged. Abdur-Rahkman further asserted himself as the team’s most reliable finisher, seemingly driving to the basket at will on four separate occasions.
After a two-game absence from a foot injury, junior forward Moritz Wagner returned — albeit sluggishly — to work himself back into the lineup. Most notably, in a three-possession sequence early in the second half, Wagner made a layup by the basket, blocked a layup on the other end and dished to a cutting Matthews. His seven points and six boards don’t pop out on the stat sheet, but his comfortability was nonetheless a welcome sign.
“I didn’t expect him to play that well,” Beilein said. “When I saw he finally made a layup, he hit a three, I said ‘Let’s get him out of here.’ He got to see the ball going in a little bit. (But) it’s important. If he plays that way against Iowa, then we have no chance. It was good to get that out of him.”
Michigan’s inconsistent shooting was certainly ugly. The turnovers were even uglier. But now fully healthy, a cleaner second half let the Wolverines display everything they are capable of with their veterans, plus Matthews, at the steering wheel.
I thought we’d get to see forever, but forever has blown away. It’s so hard to say goodbye to yesterday.
Michigan faced a stacked deck with eight new faces and a complete upheaval of last year’s starting lineup. Like any good John Beilein team, time healed the wounds of losing talent.
Against the Dolphins, there were obvious causes for concern, but also signs of reassurance — coming in the forms of stout defense and creative floor spacing — headed into tougher conference play.
Regardless, an upcoming away game Jan. 2 against a volatile Iowa team could still be a shock to the system.
Boyz II Men, of course, understands the uncertainties that lie ahead.
I don’t know where this road is going to lead. All I know is where we’ve been and what we’ve been through.