I’m sure a few of you opened up the newspaper yesterday, saw the eight-point differential in the Michigan men’s basketball team’s opening exhibition game against Division II Grand Valley State and immediately broke into your best Chicken Little impression. “The sky is falling! The sky is falling! And Michigan is headed for another horrendous basketball season!”
Before you go hit up the message boards and announce to the world how terrible you think Michigan basketball is, I recommend you count to 10 and take a few deep breaths. It was an exhibition game. Just a measly exhibition game. Feel better now?
No, Michigan’s 77-69 victory at Crisler Arena wasn’t the prettiest basketball I’ve ever seen. No, that type of performance won’t cut it against Big Ten opponents. But final scores in preseason matchups are like Tigers games in September – they don’t matter.
But it is true that some potentially disturbing trends reared their ugly heads. The Wolverines played an incredibly sloppy game featuring almost every variety of turnover: passes off big guys’ knees, balls dribbled off feet, lazy passes on the perimeter and miscommunications on backdoor cuts. The stat sheet doesn’t lie: 25 turnovers is an unacceptable total, and it is especially worrisome given the Wolverines’ turnover problems last season.
But don’t lose perspective. Any team will have some rust to shake off in its first intersquad matchup of the season. It’s unreasonable to expect Michigan to be completely in tune its first time out.
And more than a few of the Wolverines’ turnovers were directly attributable to Grand Valley State’s unique style of play. Michigan’s three primary post players – Graham Brown, Courtney Sims and Chris Hunter – combined for 13 turnovers, an uncommonly high proportion for big men. The Lakers – who had only just three players taller than 6-foot-4 – swarmed the post with three or four small players each time a big man received the ball on the blocks. Michigan’s post players were clearly flustered by this method, but few Division I teams will utilize such an aggressive strategy under the basket. In my mind, the real worry is turnover-prone play from the ballhandlers, and the Wolverines didn’t play horrendously in that respect.
Dion Harris’s performance was also a potential cause for concern. Michigan’s ironman played a team-high 32 minutes in the exhibition opener but left without scoring a single point. The junior was an afterthought in Michigan’s offense; he missed all five of his field goal attempts and never found his way to the free-throw line.
Again, I don’t want to read into Harris’s struggles too much. Everyone has off days, and although Harris’s performance on Saturday was particularly brutal, the exhibition season is the time to work out these kinks. The Wolverines will aim to get him more involved in the offensive flow during their final exhibition against Northern Michigan. A successful game could give him some confidence heading into the games that count.
And, while the turnover situation and Harris’s play left much to be desired, Michigan looked sharp in number of other aspects of the game. Senior Daniel Horton, for one, was simply brilliant in his return to the Maize and Blue. In Horton’s first appearance since Jan. 22, he notched a team-high 23 points, including a 4-for-7 performance from downtown. The point guard also ran the fast break effectively, dishing a game-high five assists.
Horton’s triumphant return was just one positive coming out of Michigan’s first exhibition. With junior Brent Petway out for the nonconference season due to academic ineligibility, 6-foot-6 sophomore Ron Coleman got his first minutes as a collegiate power forward and looked fairly comfortable. Granted, against the Lakers, Coleman faced 6-foot-4 opponents. But in his first effort in the post since high school, Coleman displayed nice instincts around the basket. In just a few minutes at the four position, he converted a put-back bucket and just missed on a pretty baby hook attempt.
In addition, freshmen Jerret Smith and Jevohn Shepherd showed significant potential in their first outings in Michigan uniforms. Smith displayed a quick first step, driving past Laker defenders on a number of occasions. Shepherd didn’t make much of a contribution in 10 minutes of play but displayed his impressive vertical leap while grabbing two boards. Neither freshman played perfectly, but it’s clear they have the raw talent to contribute off the bench for Michigan this year.
Despite the final score, anyone who actually attended the game (far fewer than the 7,959 the athletic department claimed) would know that the Wolverines dominated the Lakers for most of the exhibition. Holding a 24-point lead with 8:13 to go, Michigan lost its focus in a game that simply didn’t matter. If the Wolverines do the same thing in a real game, I promise, I’ll get on their case.
But until then, I advise all those Chicken Littles to stop their screaming. For now at least, the sky isn’t going anywhere.
Matt Singer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org