There’s a reason Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein described his team’s only preseason game as a “dress rehearsal.”

Michigan freshman Ben Cronin plays against Saginaw Valley State on Thursday, November 6, 2008. The game was an exhibition, and Michigan won 81-55.

It was his final look at the team before the season. He expected there to be some kinks to work out,and there were plenty.

The Wolverines’ offense went on an almost seven-minute scoring drought. Their defense gave Saginaw Valley State good looks early on, while Michigan was still getting a feel for the game. The Cardinals outrebounded Michigan, using second-chance opportunities off offensive rebounds to build a lead big enough to silence the crowd. And the Wolverines shot 59 percent from the free throw line.

And that was just the first half.

Last night, the Crisler Arena crowd sat in disbelief as the Wolverines had to come from behind to take a four-point halftime lead against a Division II school. The cautious optimism many Michigan fans carried into this year seemed to deflate with every Saginaw Valley State bucket.

But that’s when the “dress rehearsal” became more like the real thing. The Wolverines outscored the Cardinals 61-30 in the game’s final 23 minutes.

An old man sitting behind me in the stands was growling about missed shots and errant passes during the first half. He was upset that young players like freshman guard Zack Novak were getting substantial playing time while sophomore guard Kelvin Grady and junior forward DeShawn Sims, who were starters last year, came off the bench. He was upset the offense didn’t click from the get-go. He was upset the Wolverines’ beacon of hope last season, Manny Harris, shot just four field goals in the first half.

Calm down. It’s the preseason.

Michigan got better last night, and that’s all anyone can ask for.

There are few times when you can see a team progress during one game. That happened last night. Something clicked with about three minutes to go in the first half. Here’s what I saw:

Manny Harris became Manny Harris. Although he looked timid during the first half, you could see the change in his game in the second frame. He knew when to drive, when to shoot and when to pass. He used his incredible slashing abilities to crash the defense into the paint and open up 3-pointers for players like big men Zach Gibson and Sims, a skill that will be essential if the team is going to do any damage in the Big Ten.

Sims morphed into a legitimate post presence. Michigan didn’t even attempt a two-point shot in the game’s first three minutes. But Sims came in, posted up and converted some easy baskets that the Wolverines weren’t getting when he was on the bench.

Stu Douglass is going to have a big impact this year. Freshmen shouldn’t be this confident on the court. He was great coming off picks, immediately releasing 3-pointers as soon as the ball was in his hands. And if his 3-for-5 performance from downtown is any indication, Douglass will be raining threes all season.

Players like these three make a team better, and if they continue to grow as much as they did in the final 23 minutes yesterday, the Wolverines could turn some heads in Beilein’s second year at the helm. It’s way too early to tell where this season will take Michigan, but yesterday’s second half was a big step in the right direction.

— Reid can be reached at

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