NEW YORK — Michigan coach John Beilein loves calling each game a “measuring stick.”
Usually, an early season game doesn’t mean much over the course of the year. But Thursday and Friday’s games against UCLA and Duke show just how much Michigan has improved since the start of the Beilein era.
Last season, Michigan lost to both teams by an average of 21.5 points. Already this season, Michigan shocked No. 4 UCLA and stayed close to No. 5 Duke, eventually losing by 15 points.
The Wolverines will have another chance to measure their growth when the Blue Devils roll into Crisler Arena on Dec. 6.
It’s rare for a team to play a non-conference opponent twice in a season, especially one as talented as Duke.
“It’s like we’re in the same league,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “But playing against John’s teams will always make us better. One of the reasons we scheduled Michigan was because playing them will make us better, win or lose.”
Michigan coach John Beilein is also focused on improving. Before the season started, he said every game would be about getting better, and if his players get better, the wins eventually come. And Beilein’s players have bought into his philosophy of constant improvement.
“I like the way that in timeouts or whatever, even when we’ve been instructional or harsh on them at times, they’re eager to learn right now,” Beilein said.
For the Wolverines to measure up and beat Duke in less than two weeks, they will have to get better in a few areas:
Shooting: It’s hard to ask a team to shoot the ball better, but Michigan shot just .352 from the field and just .273 from downtown Friday night.
The Wolverines had open opportunities from outside, but shot after shot went off the back of the rim. They never hit a big, team-igniting shot, like the one freshman Stu Douglass provided to start the second half against UCLA.
Once the early shots didn’t fall, the Wolverines began rushing, and when shooters begin hurrying attempts, the team is less likely to win.
More points in the paint: Except for sophomore Manny Harris, the Wolverines were ineffective at driving to the post, so they forced up shots from outside the paint.
One reason for Michigan’s success against UCLA was that the team’s big men, like junior forward DeShawn Sims, successfully moved from outside to inside and slashed to the post for easy baskets. But against Duke, Sims moved from inside to outside, shooting long two-pointers instead of cutting into the paint. Sims was 9-of-15 against the Bruins, but just 5-of-13 against the Blue Devils.
1-3-1 zone: Michigan’s 1-3-1 zone was effective against the Bruins, but Krzyzewski showed why he’s one of the best coaches in the country with his gameplan to attack the zone. The Blue Devils constantly pushed the ball into the paint to split the zone, leading to easy baskets down low or wide-open shots from the perimeter.
Some Michigan players didn’t adjust properly in the zone. Duke often forced Wolverines out of position and took advantage of mismatches. Beilein said after the loss that his team didn’t make the proper adjustments and that he hasn’t had time to coach the defensive changes to combat the Blue Devil offense.
The Wolverines, who had less than 24 hours to plan for Duke on Friday night, will no doubt be better prepared for December’s game, and will also have the advantage of playing at home. Although Crisler isn’t the best arena in the nation, it sure beats having to play at Duke’s raucous Cameron Indoor Stadium.
No matter what happens in two weeks, it will be just another measuring stick for the Wolverines.