In big-time men’s college basketball, there are few tangible benefits in playing sub-Division I teams. The opponent is often overmatched. Crowd attendance is seldom high. Worse yet, the typically easy victories are not counted in the RPI rankings, which in March help determine seeding in the NCAA Tournament.
Yet schedules must be filled, so Division I programs find themselves holding what seem like glorified scrimmages. Case in point: Michigan’s 47-point blowout of Division II Northern Michigan last Saturday.
The game didn’t leave many valuable lessons for Michigan coach John Beilein to flush out for his team going forward. But at least it gave the Wolverines’ frontcourt a light workout.
Michigan’s forward/center rotation of DeShawn Sims, Zack Gibson, Zack Novak and Anthony Wright made 12 of 16 shots in the paint against the Wildcats. Despite their relative lack of size, the foursome scored in every way imaginable – dunks, putbacks, layups, jumpers – and were often left wide open, thanks to guard penetration that drew in weak-side defenders.
“The passing of this team has gotten better,” Sims said. “Coach Beilein’s been doing a great job of having us see the extra man and making good decisions. We’re penalized for every bad decision we make in practice, so it transitions to the court.”
Those easy baskets paved the way for a 42-16 advantage in the paint, which included Gibson’s career high-tying 11 points.
The fifth-year senior, who averaged 12 minutes per game last season as a reserve center, is expected to get more playing time this year. Beilein said he has been impressed with Gibson’s preseason play and has devoted a significant amount of time in practice to playing him alongside Sims.
“He’s got a much better dribble game, where he can actually fake a shot, take a dribble and get it in,” Beilein said. “He didn’t have to do that a lot last year. … I’m looking forward to getting some of those things out (of him).”
Although the Wolverines were content with their frontcourt dominance, no one needed any reminders of the talent level of the opponent. Gibson said it was “nice for a change” to play a game when his team had the size advantage, and Beilein admitted tougher challenges lay ahead.
It remains to be seen whether the rest of the team, other than Sims, can generate consistent low-post scoring before conference play starts. Last season, the Detroit native made 55 percent of his two-point shots and transformed himself into one of the more polished low-post threats in the Big Ten. According to College Basketball Prospectus, Sims took 30.7 percent of his team’s shots when he was on the floor, which led the conference.
Outside of Sims, Novak and Wright are perimeter-oriented forwards, and Gibson averaged just four points per game last season.
Additionally, Beilein knows Sims (6-foot-8, 235 pounds) is not a prototypical NBA power forward.
“When we’re trying to win games, we’re also in practice trying to develop (Sims) so he can play at another level,” Beilein said. “And his next level is not as a post man. He’s a post man (now), but we want him to have the skill level where he can do things on the outside, and can use some athleticism.
“But I like the way he’s handled himself when he’s not just in the post, and he appears quicker to me, too.”
Breakin’ it: Perhaps the biggest advantage the Wolverines had over the Wildcats on Saturday was speed. Michigan’s four-guard units helped key a 13-2 advantage in fastbreak points. Beilein preaches running only after missed shots and turnovers, and his players certainly seemed to have sharpened their read-and-run instincts.
On several occasions, the Wolverines had a two or three-man advantage, sprinting down the court off a turnover or defensive rebound before Northern Michigan’s backcourt could react.
“We’re small,” Sims said. “We have to run the floor. … We’re a team full of athletes, and we’ve got to run the floor until we don’t have nothing left to give to the offense.”
One fleeting moment: One minor surprise Saturday was Beilein not putting a 10th man in his expected rotation. Redshirt freshman center Ben Cronin was relegated to five minutes of mop-up duty at the end of the game. Beilein said he held Cronin out of the rotation because of an injury to his shooting hand suffered in a three-on-three drill Nov. 6, several hours before the Wayne State game.
“Ben had a tough week of practice (since the injury),” Beilein said. “Knowing if the game got out of hand, I’d rather give him five or six consecutive minutes rather than pull him in and out. I think he’ll be fine by (Friday’s game against Houston Baptist).”