Wolverines Express

RIVALRIES ARE MADE OF THIS

By the time MSU and Michigan were ready for the tip the Chrisler Center had done its job. The players could feel it: not just the weight of expectations, but the pressure of having the season on the line, palpable like an extra body on the court wearing the jersey.
And it was like an explosion when the ball went up, the whole arena roaring and raring to go, flying at once with the guys in maize and blue.
It felt just right like it should have always felt, only the Wolverines had waited too long to take advantage of their crowd. But at least the feeling was back for ‘THE’ Rivalry game. A perfect excuse to return to square one and come together now; fans and students alike, players and staff trusting each other and pushing, impossible for the villain of this piece Cassius Winston to hold his nerve.
It wasn’t meant to be an easy outing for Winston. They never are, but most of the times his quality on the ball, passing and decision making get him on top of his rival. Not this time. Juwan Howard knew too well Cassius shouldn’t be allowed too much time on the ball. Don’t let him think, go on hard on the hedge, double him up if you can, be aggressive on passing lanes and hassle him at all costs. No room to breathe.
Michigan exchanged a few empty possessions with the Spartans early on, tons of trouble to score... Cold shooting from deep and also missing chances in the drive and in transition offense, blocked at the rim. The Wolverines hold their own, and matched State with high intensity and the screaming behind them. Livers’ length, athleticism and footspeed was everywhere contesting shots, while Franz Wagner became a jack of all trades on his own end; length on the paint and on the ball, swapping matchups, letting Cassius know this time would be different.

No sir, not an easy night for Winston and MSU. Izzo’s traditional chit-chat with the officials looked flat, and quite a few times the Spartans’ troops were forced to make quick decisions and rush jumpshots with their floor general struggling to call plays.
Still, even with balanced scoring and the right defensive mindset, State was never far behind in the game, never completely lost or defeated, close to take over for a moment in the second half, when ‘crunch man’ Eli Brooks came big from behind the arc twice, and then fed Teske on the run for ‘Big Sleep’ most spectacular bucket of the night.

It was the right Michigan’s approach in a game of this magnitude: all-in defense particularly on Winston’s PnR, work with a stable 8-man rotation to keep the intensity and offensive production, spread the floor for some threes around your bigman, crash the glass, and especially push the pace at every chance looking for easy transition points. Then again, how did Michigan get to this almost breaking point? Playing literally for survival in February, an absolute must-win after starting the season 7–0 and victors in Bahamas in the deepest 2019 Holiday Invitational...

ON THE MANY FACES OF A ROLLERCOASTER YEAR

1. Peaking too soon

Was Michigan punching above its weight in November? You can easily argue the Wolverines exceeded any expectations at the Battle 4 Atlantis. In those happy weeks Juwan was adjusting to Beilein’s personnel and getting to know a team built around Zavier Simpspon’s PnR execution.
Defensive automatisms from the Luke Yachlik’s days were still on place, and Jon Teske was revealing himself in the post in a new major offensive role. Eli Brooks was playing considerably more, spicing things with his shotmaking as well as his usual defensive effort, and meanwhile David DeJulius was creating his own buckets from the bench.

Franz Wagner introduction in Bahamas was a plus that stretched the rotation and multiplied the bodies. His threes weren’t falling yet, but he earned every minute on the court with his hard work, energy and defensive awareness.
Naturally Isaiah Livers was also there, making all things click, smooth and versatile, legit shooter with athleticism, bounce and leadership qualities.
A couple of expected losses on the road slowed the Wolverines straight after Bahamas, but the home defeat to Oregon was the tough one. Michigan looked vulnerable in Ann Arbor for first time, staying behind most of the game, with Zavier well beaten 1on1 by Payton Pritchard down the stretch and without any defensive adjustments. Even in those circumstances, the team managed to climb its way back into the game, but then let it go in the last two shots.
There were positives in defeat, though: especially Brandon Johns stepping up as small-ball center, and Howard taking note of Dana Altman’s changeable 2–3 zone defense.

2. Livers’ injury

The sweet days were gone on a cold saturday of December, when Livers fell injured against Presbyterian. Neither Isaiah’s teammates nor the coaching staff was prepared for what was coming: pushing a short roster to its limit, and cracking the balance between the froncourt and backcourt lines.
All the sudden what was looking like a great year turned around completely in Livers’ nine game absence, only interrupted in the home defeat against Illinois when he re-injured in similar fashion although not that seriously.

The reality check was especially harsh in B1G play, when Howard realized he was missing not only his most versatile player on both ends, but also his best shooter, most talkative defender and one of the very few guys who could create shots all by himself. The Wolverines’ rotation felt broken, with Brandon Johns forced to play in the 4th spot for long periods with some irregular displays, forgetting about his promising small-mobile 5 splash.
Out of necessity Wagner, most of the season stuck in the wing, had a huge impact as mobile 4 in the OT win against Purdue. He provided much needed spacing and made the most of his length and D instincts in the paint. In my opinion this is his best fit, and he has showed glimpses of how he can grow in that role as professional. However Juwan has barely used that option again, probably forced for the Wolverines backcourt’s lack of bodies. In any case it’s been now two full games since Livers has come back to the starting lineup playing 30 minutes, and I can’t stress enough how fluid and different the Wolverines have looked against MSU and Northwestern. His combination of athleticism, shooting threat and skill have lifted spirits and brought back Michigan’s early edge.

3. Two Big lineups, Teske’s regression and other coaching stuff

As a direct consequence of Livers going down, Juwan Howard has started to use two centers together from the trio Teske, Davis, Castleton since December, instead of moving Wagner to the 4 spot to support Brandon Johns. In Howard’s defense we can argue that he is a former bigman himself, and that neither Adrian Nunez nor Cole Bajema were ready to have a bigger chunck of minutes in the wing. The truth is that such unbalanced lineup hasn’t worked in most occasions. It leaves the team in a difficult defensive position in terms of speed and switchability, and doesn’t help the offense either, negating spacing and collapsing the paint without real shooting threat from the combo-forward spot. In any case it doesn’t look like a sustainable way forward, and has been particularly harmful for Colin Castleton, an odd fit at the 4 who has seen his PT considerably reduce in the second part of the season.

Although flexible on the defensive end and ready to tweak and use different zones, Howard has also has persisted too many times in the 1on1 post defense, an old favourite on Beilein, an scenario in which Jon Teske has lost almost all his NBA Draft stock, battered in B1G play by the likes of Luka Garza, Cockburn, Tillman, Trevion Williams or Daniel Oturu. We can agree that Jon has never been the most athletic 7 footer on the block, and the simplest explanation would be that facing better opposition has reduced his impact in the game, but even like that it’s hard to explain ‘Big Sleep’ regression from his junior year, when he was a D cornerstone for the Wolverines in the post or matching up guards in space with his size and footwork.
Recently Michigan has changed its defensive approach down low, sending Teske help in form of doubles and some digs to break the opposition entry passes and post moves. It’s been better, but Teske issues continue, lately on the other end where his finishing over every shoulder has gone below 30%. A mixture of athletic limitations and tiredness because of his larger role? A lack of reliable range shooting? It might well be. To me Jon looks also bigger than ever, carrying too much weight which affects his overall mobility, lift and anticipation. Besides that he still needs to work on his offensive game as a passer, especially when establishing position deep inside against doubles.

4. Jeff Jackson: the Doppelgänger

To understand how Michigan’s season is unfolding we go back to late January, when after a painful home defeat against Illinois, Chrislan Manuel’s car, the wife of AD Walde Manuel, crashed in icy conditions against a utility pole. And who was the infamous driver? Not other than Jeff Jackson. But wait, wasn’t Zavier Simpson the one behind the wheel? Yes, he was. Although we could argue he was still under the effects of Ayo Dosunmu perfect crunch jump shot. There was nothing else to see here; just some great but unlucky D by X down the stretch and later that night a bad choice. Fortune was on Zavier’s side, however. What could have been a really serious incident cost him only one game suspension (Nebraska) and came to light a few weeks later just like another joke in the campus, and a spur for the Wolverines senior captain.

Was the Illini at home the lowest point of Michigan’s season?Livers’ new injury after his much expected comeback asuggests so, the atmosphere sinking low in Ann Arbor while Isaiah was walking to the bench. But we still can pick the most recent home lose against Ohio State, with Jeff Jackson also present, although still unknown to most of us, trashing Kyle Young’s jersey within the last minute and costing Michigan a harsh flagrant one and the game. Whatever you choose, the truth is that Jackson has been around for awhile, kind of evil twin who has captured Simpson’s tiredness and frustrations while dealing with a larger usage on the ball and being asked to lead the offense. Finally Jeff Jackson turned the tables last Saturday and exploded against MSU with 4 triples, free at last, and free of his 1on1 battle with Cassius Winston thanks to Eli Brooks’ shift.

WHAT’S NEXT: THE WILD B1G

At this point of the season, with only seven league games left, there is little argument against considering the B1G the top conference in the country. Rumour has it that up to 10 teams could make their way to the National Tournament next month. Is Michigan in or out at right now? A 0.500 record and a decent run in the conference tournament is a must, but wins against Gonzaga and Michigan State among others bode well for the Wolverines’ resume.

An 7, 8 or 9 seed would be seen as a good year in Ann Arbor, having in mind the roster structure and how much offensive firepower was lost without the likes of Brazdeikis, Poole and Matthews. Often you hear Beilein left the cupboard empty alongside other statements questioning the quality of his recruiting and how hard Juwan is working on the to address that issue next season. It’s a fact that recruiting has changed at Michigan, but it’s also a very dangerous stand trusting the future of the program to the quality of your incoming freshmen and transfers. Recruits don’t win games by themselves. Not in the long term. The best coaches tend to settle in and work with the pieces they have, learning about their squad and limitations, as well as about themselves. Howard has proved to be willing to adjust defensively although slow at times, and he’s been more than efficient creating good looks on the whiteboard out of TOs. He is still learning to fly in many other aspects, and will need time to offer quicker responses during a game, or get a better defensive outlook and team rotation.
It won’t be easy, and the road promises to be rough, starting again tomorrow at home with Indiana. Dog eats dog in the finest Conference in the land. But for sure Howard’s buzz has been really positive until now, and he can count of the maize & blue nation staying right behind him. He’s just truly one of them.

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