PEORIA, Ill. — Carver Arena, home to Bradley basketball, is built like a pit. The stands rise high above the players in almost every direction, a sea of red peering down on the court from the high-rising nosebleeds.
Bradley went 7-25 last season, but the crowd from the school of 6,000 was loud from the beginning of the Braves’ game against the No. 3 Michigan basketball team Saturday. The student section was right next to the Wolverine bench, so when guard Tim Hardaway Jr. laid on the floor to stretch, several waving plungers followed. The junior stretched within inches of a tool normally used for toilets, not the stands of basketball games.
It was in this pit, in Michigan’s first true road game, that coach John Beilein decided to play all five of his freshman.
Four of them have played this season, with varying degrees of frequency. Forward Glenn Robinson III was the lone starter. First off the bench was guard Nik Stauskas, who usually came in with forward Mitch McGary. When preseason All-American point guard Trey Burke needed a breather, Spike Albrecht would take his place.
The one holdout was wiry guard Caris LeVert, talented but raw, who Beilein was pocketing on the bench for a potential redshirt.
On Saturday, that redshirt was burned when LeVert entered less than five minutes into the game. Stauskas started his first game of the year, and Albrecht entered after an early Burke foul. By the time McGary checked in a little more than six minutes into the game, all five freshman had played.
The inexperience showed at points, but Michigan righted the ship after halftime en route to a 74-66 victory over Bradley.
The nerves were evident early on for the sharpshooting Stauskas. Coming off the bench in every game this year, he has shot 58-percent from beyond the three-point arc — but was 3-for-8 from the floor in the first half while playing 19 of the 20 minutes.
“I’ve been out there a lot in pressure situations, so I just played the game the same way I normally do and didn’t look at it any differently,” Stauskas said. “It was a little bit exciting, but when the game starts you just gotta do what you gotta do.”
As a team, Michigan (7-0) shot 41-percent from the floor in the first half, which would have been good for its worst percentage of the season if that trend had continued the entire game.
But the more pressing concern was turnovers. Michigan had seven giveaways in the first half, one more than they did in the entire game against then-No.18 North Carolina State last week.
The one saving grace in the first half was rebounding, which helped to mask the poor shooting and giveaways. Michigan recorded 10 offensive rebounds, while the Braves (5-2) had just nine defensive rebounds. McGary, in particular, was all over the glass, pulling down five rebounds in 11 first-half minutes.
The Wolverines entered halftime up by just four, and Hardaway, the team’s leading scorer at almost 18 per game, didn’t have a point to go along with his three turnovers.
And in the second half, Bradley played like its crowd — roaring, resilient and ready to go. Michigan kept on attacking, but Bradley wouldn’t let the lead balloon. Teams like Michigan don’t play in Bradley’s Missouri Valley Conference, but the Braves countered talent with tenacity.
“The crowd came today and we felt it,” Burke said. “Every time they went on a run, we felt it, but I think we did a really good job of just staying calm in those situations.”
But that tenacity couldn’t last all game. Bradley finished the game with 15 turnovers, and it couldn’t keep Michigan off the glass. The Wolverines finished with 32 rebounds, 13 of them on the offensive end.
“They were definitely a really physical team down low,” Morgan said. “It definitely was a battle, probably close to if not comparable to what we will see in the Big Ten.”
It wasn’t until about 10 minutes left in the game, when Burke fed Hardaway for a massive fast break dunk, that the crowd quieted down a little bit. That pushed the Wolverine lead to 10, and the lead fluttered around double-digits for the rest of the game.
Stauskas, like the rest of the Wolverines, had a much improved second-half, finishing the game with a game high 22 points while shooting 53 percent from the floor.
Back-to-back turnovers by redshirt junior forward Jordan Morgan and Hardaway cut Michigan’s lead to seven with a little over a minute to play, but a Braves turnover cost them valuable time and finished off the game.
Michigan finished the game shooting 49-percent from the floor, but still had 13 turnovers — tied for the most it’s had all year.
Down in the pit, the Wolverines finished off their first true road game of the year undefeated amongst the plungers and the noise.
“Playing here was kind of like playing on the road somewhere in the Big Ten,” Burke said. “We’re going to have a lot of road games this year and we’re young, but I think we handled our first real road game tonight.”