Now this is how Tommy Amaker envisioned the complete Michigan basketball game.

Brian Schick
Brian Schick

By no means am I saying that last night’s 71-61 win over Northwestern was the perfect game. But it was close to the style of play that the Wolverines hoped they could use in order to be successful this season: the inside-out game.

This wasn’t even the best lineup Michigan can put on the floor, but it made the most of what was available — which has been the story of the season. When three players can contribute 82 percent of the Michigan offense, something is going right.

Just let that sink in for a minute. Daniel Horton, Dion Harris and Courtney Sims scored 58 out of 71 points for Michigan. The other five players that saw game time scored a total of 13. While that’s impressive, it was the way the team put together its offense last night that has me optimistic about this team — injuries and all.

“I think this is (the) best we’ve played — since I’ve been here — as a team,” Sims said. “Everybody is playing as a team, and nobody is worrying about their stats. Everybody is trying to win.”

The only way the inside-out game works is for players to be unselfish, and that was clearly evident against the Wildcats. When a forward is double-teamed down low, he needs to kick it to a guard. If a guard can’t find an open perimeter shot, he needs to pass it into the post.

For as much heat as Sims has taken from the Michigan coaching staff this season, he put together a solid effort last night. In addition, he was the lone regular frontcourt starter who was healthy, which increased the pressure on him. As soon as Sims saw that senior J.C. Mathis would receive his first start of the season, he knew that the Northwestern frontcourt would be targeting him. And he stepped up to the challenge.

Sims looked more physical in the post, especially against a tough opponent on defense in Northwestern’s Mike Thompson. Sims scored 17 points and hit all seven of his foul shots, which was most impressive to Amaker.

“When I look at his line, I’m very impressed,” Amaker said after the game. “He’s responded in a positive way.”

Not to be outdone, Harris and Horton managed to balance each other out in both halves. Harris was on fire in the first half, scorching the Wildcats for 11 points. Then he handed off the baton to Horton, who scored 19 of his season-high 24 points in the second half.

“We always want to work off of each other,” Harris said of Horton. “We’re just working together out there, and it’s working out perfect right now.”

Michigan has proven to be at its most dangerous when anyone on the court is a threat to score. Northwestern had its hands full last night, as it had to worry about three players. When Chris Hunter returns to the lineup and Ron Coleman explodes the way he has shown he can in recent games, opposing defenses will be having fits.

The return of Horton to the lineup has taken a lot of the pressure off Harris to create his own shots and keep the heat off the post players by hitting 3-pointers. The effect of Horton’s return on Harris has been obvious, as the sophomore has scored 12, 20 and 17 points since Horton’s return against Iowa on Jan. 5.

With the guards scoring in double figures each night, things open up for Michigan’s big men. Sims narrowly missed his career-high point total of 19 by just two, and his aggressiveness forced the Northwestern defenders to keep fouling him. Horton believes that, when Sims plays well, he will also have a good game.

“When (Sims) establishes himself as a low-post threat, it opens up (the perimeter),” Horton said. “When he’s scoring like that, they have to give him more attention. When they double him, it leaves us open on the perimeter. We just have to be ready to shoot.”

Amaker is always looking for all his players to be consistent scoring threats, and he has done a great job of pulling out wins without his best talent of the floor. Now, all the various components are falling into place. With key players returning to the lineup, the offense has picked up as well. Tonight’s 71 points was the third-highest output of the season, and Michigan’s 56.1 percent shooting was also its third best mark of the season. After the game, it was apparent that Amaker liked what he saw.

“When you look at the stat sheet, we had pretty good balance,” Amaker said. “It was good balance for having some players out. The (balanced) scoring was one of the keys for victory tonight.”

Not only tonight, but I’ll bet Amaker will be looking for the inside-out game to be the key to his team’s success throughout the Big Ten season.

 

Brian Schick can be reached at bschick@umich.edu.

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