During the first two possessions for the Michigan men’s basketball team in its 79-72 win against North Carolina State (4-2) on Tuesday, the Wolverines played the way some experts believed they would play prior to the season — inexperienced, with freshman mistakes. Two turnovers and a Wolfpack dunk later, Michigan stopped its careless play.
During a 25-minute stretch that spanned across the first and second halves on Tuesday, the third-ranked Wolverines (6-0) played mistake-free basketball and busted open what was once a close contest. Michigan turned the ball over just six times all game, and sophomore point guard Trey Burke didn’t cough the ball up once. For junior guard Tim Hardaway, Jr., those numbers were quite surprising.
“We only had six?” Hardaway asked. “Dang. I thought we had more than that. N.C. State did a good job trying to deflect passes, strip the ball and running in the passing lane like they did in the first two possessions.”
The Wolverines easily won the turnover battle and continued this season’s trend of rarely turning over the basketball. Through the first six games last season, the Wolverines averaged 12 turnovers per game, but this season, Michigan has kept giveaways to a minimum, averaging less than 10 per game.
Hardaway and head coach John Beilein credit this downward trend to unity and recognition of what isn’t working.
“In practice we really emphasize (no turnovers),” Beilein said. “(The players) also understand the value of it — as long as we have the ball, good things can happen. They understand (turnovers are) one thing that’s frowned upon in practice.”
Added Hardaway: “I think we did a good job coming together (on Tuesday) and just saying, ‘Hey let’s protect the ball.’ There shouldn’t be pressure at all on the offensive end. You have to have confidence when you go out there and play, and I think we all do a good job of trusting one another.”
A lot of the change has come from Burke’s confidence level and his improved ability to spread the ball. Last year, Burke took it upon himself to be a scorer, even when the reads weren’t there — he’d force a shot or turn the ball over while trying to make a play. This year, things are completely different.
In the first halves against Kansas State and North Carolina State, Burke was silent. The sophomore point guard found himself a new role in looking for the open shooter — namely Hardaway and freshman guard Nik Stauskas, who have been the bulk of the Wolverines’ offense lately. Burke is averaging almost eight assists per game, doubling his average from last season.
On Tuesday against the Wolfpack, Burke tied his career-high in assists with nine in the first half alone. Though he went on to have 18 points, his 11 assists — a career-high and good for his first career double-double — were the highlight of his game.
“This year I know we have more weapons and guys who can score and that kind of opens me up,” Burke said. “It’s a matter of making the read the defense gives to us. What was there was getting deep into the paint and kicking it out to Nik and Tim early, and it got guys going and the confidence level (up) early.”
Beilein said Burke continues to work on his ball control and limiting turnovers in practice by making the right adjustments after a performance with which he’s unsatisfied. Burke said that he also spends time working with assistant coach LaVall Jordan on making good reads and keeping poised and patient while running the offense.
But how different is Burke’s play compared to last year’s? Would last season’s team be able to win without the scoring contribution from Burke, as this year’s squad has done?
“That would’ve been difficult,” Beilein said. “But that nine assists though, he was finding the open men. … He wants to win, and whether he has to score points — because they were locking up the rails on Nik and Tim (on Tuesday) — he just goes to work. He’s got that ability that only the best point guards have to jump it in from 15 to 20 feet.”