NEW YORK — Before Wednesday night, the Michigan men’s basketball team hadn’t endured a lull on offense this fall. The fourth-ranked Wolverines have averaged just under 90 points per game. But in its NIT Preseason Tip-Off semifinal game against Pittsburgh (4-1), Michigan didn’t have its usual cushion.
Instead, the Wolverines (5-0) had to rely on defense and rebounding to stage a comeback against the Panthers. Michigan flashed a bit of Michigan coach John Beilein’s trademark 1-3-1 defense and redshirt junior forward Jordan Morgan pulled down a game-high four offensive boards to beat Pittsburgh, 67-62.
The Panthers proved to be the first real test for the Wolverines, boasting a strong, tall lineup that had the physicality to rebound. Beilein had emphasized earlier that Morgan needed to improve his play in the paint.
In the first half, Morgan was pushed around on the defensive glass and Pittsburgh was able to execute the pick-and-roll around the Wolverine defense. If the Panthers missed, they were easily able to snag offensive boards for the put-back.
Though Morgan finished the game with eight boards and Michigan won the rebounding battle, 37-26, Beilein pushed his big man to limit the Panthers’ post production. Pittsburgh was still able to go down low easily, as 30 of its points came in the paint, but finished with just five second-chance points.
“We talked so much about this the last couple games, how Pitt is winning off the offensive rebound, how they’ve always been very good at that,” Beilein said. “(We) challenged (Morgan) that he had to be more physical. Our rebounding numbers as a team were high; his were not. (We) felt he had to be more assertive and he was, he really was.”
The second half was where the Wolverines saw the most improvement on the glass. Aided by the zone and flashes of the 1-3-1 defense, Michigan eliminated Pittsburgh’s extra possessions and held the Panthers to a 38-percent shooting clip. The Wolverines tallied 18 second-half rebounds and outrebounded Pittsburgh, 9-3, in the final 8:24, when they took the lead for good.
Sophomore guard Trey Burke said the halftime adjustment was evident and that Beilein trusted the team with the shift in defense, noting that it was able to slow down Pittsburgh’s offense.
“We’ve been working on (the zone) a little bit to change things up,” Beilein said of the halftime adjustment. “We were really having trouble with their pick-and-roll action — they’re really good at it. The biggest thing is it puts them in position to offensive rebound. Usually you don’t rebound as well out of zones, but in the first half if they did miss they had a put-back, so we felt maybe take them out of some rhythm.”
Last season, Michigan turned to the 1-3-1 out of necessity, not because of its size — the Wolverines had shorter guards Zack Novak and Stu Douglass on the wings. This fall, Beilein has more length on the wings to execute the defense, but is stuck with younger players who are still learning to run it.
“I think it has some merit to look at it in the future,” Beilein said. “Our length at our wings — the three, the two and the four spot — it has a chance to work. They’re still learning but the length is making a big difference.”