It was like a five-on-five game of “NBA Jam.” Defense was an afterthought, Brent Petway was throwing down absurd dunks and a number of Michigan players qualified for “on fire” status.
I, for one, was surprised that the nets didn’t start flaming when Lester Abram’s shots swished through the net.
During Big Ten Media Day in October, Northwestern coach Bill Carmody downplayed the importance of defense. Not such a good strategy, Bill. Michigan shot 65 percent from the field and missed just five shots in the entire first half. Sure, Northwestern’s slow-down offense prevents most teams from amassing ridiculous point totals. But last night, the Wildcats’ zone “defense” was an embarrassment.
Although Northwestern’s defensive intensity was pathetic, I’ll give credit where credit is due. The Wolverines capitalized and ran away with a game for the first time in this young Big Ten season, cruising to a 68-51 win.
Abram’s performance looked more like a scene from the movie “Pleasantville” than the play of a man dealing with a nagging toe injury. He drained all five of his shots in the first half, including two treys, and scored 20 points on 9-for-12 shooting. The Wildcats had no choice but to pick their poison. Pop out and contest the three, and Abram would drive for the mid-range jumper. Give him a cushion, and Abram would drill the trey.
Dion Harris’s resurgent showing was also encouraging. After two straight sub-par performances, Harris shot 6-for-12 and poured in 15 points. Like Abram, he fearlessly drained long-distance shots and showed a willingness to attack the basket when the long “J” wasn’t there.
Michigan wasn’t going up against the best team – and certainly not the best defense – in the Big Ten, but the Wolverines’ balance showed just how dangerous they can be. Abram, Harris and Daniel Horton can all shoot the long “J”, beat defenders off the dribble and set up their teammates for good looks. Few teams in the nation – let alone the Big Ten – can boast a backcourt trio of that caliber.
Of course, it’s hard to ask Abram, Harris and Horton to put up big numbers in every game. After all, there are only so many shots to go around. But last night’s game represented a near-perfect balance. Abram and Harris shared the ball and scored 35 points between them. Meanwhile, Horton’s shots weren’t falling, so he deferred to his teammates and picked up eight assists.
After Michigan opened up a 20-point lead in the second half – thanks to the backcourt’s performance – I finally felt like I could rest easy. But I should have known Michigan would find a way to make my heart leap into my throat. With nine minutes to go, Horton crashed to the floor in obvious pain, holding his ankle. He limped to the locker room, but re-entered the arena minutes later.
Once again, I breathed a sigh of relief. But immediately after Horton’s return to action, Petway – who threw down an acrobatic alley-oop slam to finish the first half – went down, his face in his hands.
Thankfully, it appears that both scares were just that. Horton said he’ll practice today, and Petway’s tooth injury was painful but shouldn’t keep him out of any action.
With Horton and Petway presumably OK and Abram back in the fold, the Wolverines enter a critical stretch with their key pieces in place. Against Minnesota on the road, and versus Wisconsin and Minnesota at home, it likely won’t come as easy for Michigan as it did last night. But for now, it was nice to see the Wolverines bury an inferior team.
– Matt Singer can be reached at email@example.com.