LAHAINA, Hawaii — Another day, another matchup with one of college basketball’s elite programs for the Michigan basketball team.
The Wolverines will square off against UCLA (1-3) on Wednesday in the third-place/fourth-place game at the Maui Invitational, as Michigan looks to leave paradise with a winning record in the preseason tournament.
Tuesday’s loss to another basketball titan, No. 6 Duke, removed any hope for a Maui title. The Wolverines will have to bounce back quickly in order to come away with the win over the Bruins.
“We’ll go back and watch the film quickly to learn things to make Michigan basketball better,” said senior guard Zack Novak after the Duke loss. “It’s a quick turnaround. There’s a reason everyone’s saying this is one of the best fields that’s ever been in this tournament.
“We’ve got a chance to get third here, and that’s really all we can focus on.”
UCLA has a record 11 NCAA basketball championships, but this season hasn’t exactly lived up to that legacy so far. The Bruins dropped their first two games of the season to less-than-inspiring competition, falling to Loyola Marymount and getting blown out by Middle Tennessee State.
The team was able to rebound against Maui weakling Chaminade, and did come back in its semifinal against Kansas on Tuesday to make the game competitive, despite losing 72-56. Still, nobody knows quite what to expect from the Bruins.
Junior forward Reeves Nelson symbolizes those question marks. UCLA’s leading scorer and rebounder a year ago, Nelson was suspended earlier in November for a series of missteps.
The ban was lifted after just two days, but then Nelson missed the team bus to the flight to Maui last week. UCLA coach Ben Howland suspended him for the first half of the Chaminade game, but Nelson did have 12 points in the Kansas loss.
In his absence, guard Jerime Anderson (13.7 points per game) has taken over the scoring load, with forward Travis Wear and center Josh Smith also scoring in double figures. The Bruins hope their early-season shooting woes improve against Michigan on Wednesday.
“(Michigan’s) a very hard team to prep for in a few hours because they have so many things in their offense,” said UCLA coach Ben Howland. “We haven’t spent enough time working on our zone (offense). … They’re going to be playing that 1-3-1 that they’re famous for, so we’re going to have to handle that zone and play well.
“We’re going to have to play very smart (on Wednesday).”
For their part, the Wolverines are riding their first wave of sustained offensive success so far in the early part of the season. After scuffling often in wins over Ferris State, Western Illinois and Towson, Michigan scored consecutive season highs against Memphis and Duke, pouring in 73 and 75 points, respectively.
The offense stagnated too much in the team’s first three wins, lacking the flow it had developed in the second half of last season. But freshman guard Trey Burke has emerged as a playmaker in Maui. The Columbus, Ohio native has averaged 15.5 points in the two contests and has consistently knocked down outside shots. Plus, he has generally shown solid decision-making.
“Especially when you have a new ‘quarterback,’ it takes time to get things going, understanding how these things work in a game,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “We’re throwing a lot at (Burke) and, gradually, he’s absorbing as much as he can, but it takes time.
“So it’s encouraging we’re getting closer.”
Defensively, the Wolverines slipped against the Blue Devils, giving up the most points they’ve allowed all year (82) and allowing Duke to shoot 56.5 percent from the field.
Michigan’s guards struggled with the quickness of Duke’s backcourt, allowing far too many open 3-pointers. But the team should have an easier time defending the Bruins, who have averaged just 60 points in their three losses — even though, if prior games are an indication, they probably won’t play as much zone as Howland expects.
“I really like the way we’re competing,” Beilein said. “You watch your own team. You don’t know what the other peope have out there, (but) I do like the way we’re competing.”