Michigan playing team-first and improving; more Hoop Thoughts
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- When someone handed Michigan coach John Beilein a stat sheet at halftime of his team's game against Houston Baptist on Saturday, he thought his eyes were playing tricks. While building a 60-34 lead, Beilein's Wolverines tallied 18 assists (on 23 made field goals) to just one turnover. Eighteen to one! Even for a man who preaches precision, this was extraordinary.
"That thing that Bo Schembechler is famous for -- the team, the team, the team -- it's hard in today's culture to get that message across," Beilein told me after Michigan's 107-53 win. "The first thing people ask you these days is not how many assists you have. It's how many points you have. So to get people to value the good pass, that's a challenge every day."
Michigan's flyby of Houston Baptist may have been a glorified practice, but it served its dual purpose to a) get the Wolverines past a disappointing stretch in which they lost two out of three games, and b) gain positive momentum heading into Saturday's showdown with top-ranked Arizona in the Crisler Center.
Beilein, 60, is in his 37th season as a head coach, so he is not going to get caught up in outside expectations. Still, he recognizes that his world changed when Michigan made its surprising run to the national championship game last March. This is a younger, different group than the one he coached in that game, but this bunch is nonetheless forced to deal with the fallout. "The fans rushed the court at Iowa State," Beilein said, referring to the Wolverines' 77-70 loss in Ames on Nov. 17. "That's a place where you want to be as a program, but it doesn't make it easier when you get to this point."
And even though they lost at Duke last week to drop to 5-3, the Wolverines have the requisite pieces to make another run in the tournament. The only question is how long it takes for those pieces to fall into place. Michigan is one of the nation's youngest teams; its starting lineup features four sophomores and a freshman, and the first player off the bench is a freshman. So it's going to take some time to bake this cake.
Yes, Beilein would like to see his Wolverines beat Arizona on Saturday, but the more important priority is to prepare for Big Ten play next month. Here are the three areas in which Michigan will most likely improve between now and then:
1. Mitch McGary will get in better shape. McGary's unconventional decision to bypass the NBA draft was a major reason the Wolverines were ranked No. 7 in the AP's preseason poll. But he missed three months of workouts because of a strained back. He made his return against Iowa State, but through nine games, McGary had only participated in eight practices. When Beilein put him through a hard dunking drill last week, McGary was gassed after two minutes. This is a major problem for a player whose primary strength is his energy.
McGary played a season-low 23 minutes on Saturday, but that was mostly due to the victory margin. When he was on the court, he looked mighty impressive while tying his career high in assists with six. Many of those occurred while he led the transition game following defensive rebounds. I told McGary after the game that his new nickname should be "Freight Train" because of the way he came barreling down the court, but he was very much in control of his body and he did a good job avoiding charges. "I'm sure there's going to be a brave soul somewhere along the line that's going to get in his way," Beilein said, "but it hasn't happened yet."
2. Derrick Walton Jr. will become a more confident point guard. The highly touted freshman from Detroit has started every game this season, and though he has been a little sloppy with the ball at times, he has performed well overall. His task is doubly difficult: He has to follow a national player of the year in Trey Burke and pilot one of the more intricate offensive systems in the country. After practice last Friday afternoon, Walton admitted to me that he felt overwhelmed during his early practices. He also confessed that he is not a naturally vocal leader. "I'm kind of an action guy," he said. "I probably count too much on the veteran guys to say something knowing in my mind that I should be the guy to say something. I've got to work on that." When Walton finds his voice, the Wolverines will hit their stride.
3. Nik Stauskas will adjust to being at the top of the scouting report. Last year, Stauskas was a lightly recruited import from Canada who was better known for his YouTube videos than what he was doing at Michigan. He was effective as a standstill shooter playing off Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr.; but now that Stauskas has returned a stronger, more versatile offensive player, he is very much a marked man. He found that out against Duke, which assigned one defender to face-guard Stauskas through the entire game. Beilein described it as a "box-and-one with man-to-man principles." Whatever you want to call the defense, it worked. Stauskas did not make a field goal all night.
Yes, Stauskas turned his left ankle during the second half of Michigan's loss to Charlotte on Nov. 24. But that was a week-and-a-half before the Duke game, and he sat out the Wolverines' next game against Coppin State. During my visit to Ann Arbor, I was told that Stauskas practiced full bore the day before the Duke game. He may not have gotten enough help from his teammates against the Blue Devils, but he also didn't do a good enough job fighting through the defensive attention. I'm guessing that the next time someone tries to thwart him with a junk defense, he and Beilein will have a more effective response.
There are other ways in which this team can get better. It would be nice if sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III asserted himself more, and 6-foot-6 sophomore guard Caris LeVert, who scored a team-high 24 points against Duke, is just beginning to tap into his potential. Mostly, though, Michigan is going through what every other team is going through this time of year -- forging an identity, developing chemistry and building confidence. The important thing is that the talent is there, and the culture is strong. Everyone wearing the maize and blue knows what matters most: The team, the team, the team.
Read more: Five Games I'm Psyched To See This Week, Colorado's Tad Boyle, Top 25
Boise State at Kentucky, Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPN
Are the Broncos ready to justify the faith of some folks (cough, cough) who have been ranking them in their top 25? I say yes -- though it would help if Boise State's leading scorer, Anthony Drmic, broke out of his three-point shooting slump.
Boise State 70, Kentucky 69
Kansas at Florida, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN
The Gators are hoping to have point guard Scott Wilbekin back for this game, but I still don't think that will be enough to overcome a Jayhawks squad that should be plenty angry after its loss at Colorado over the weekend. Don't look now, but Andrew Wiggins played his best game since the win over Duke four weeks ago.
Kansas 75, Florida 71
Gonzaga at West Virginia, Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPN2
This is not a vintage Bob Huggins team, but it still won't be easy to win in Morgantown. I am very curious to see if the Zags are for real.
Gonzaga 72, West Virginia 64
Milwaukee at Wisconsin, Wednesday, 8 p.m.
Okay, so "psyched" may be a strong word here, but what can I say, it's a light week. The Panthers are coming in with a 9-2 record, so the Badgers better be ready to compete.
Wisconsin 71, Milwaukee 63
New Mexico State at Arizona, Wednesday, 9 p.m., Pac-12 Network
It's always interesting to see the Aggies' 7-5 sophomore center Sim Bhullar in action, but they are going to be overwhelmed going up against the nation's newly crowned No. 1 team.
Arizona 85, New Mexico State 65
SI.com: So that was quite a moment on Saturday when Askia Booker hit a buzzer beater to beat Kansas. Was that the shot you were looking for out of the time out?
Boyle: We have a play called "winner" that can be run out of bounds from every spot. That one was full-court "winner." It was designed to get the ball to Spencer Dinwiddie in the middle of the floor and let him make a play. But we couldn't get the ball to Spencer, so Xavier Johnson found Booker on the sideline. So it was a designed play that didn't go to the designed person, but obviously it went to the right guy.
SI.com: How many games have you won by buzzer beater during your career?
Boyle: Not many. I think at Northern Colorado we may have won one. We thought we did last year against Arizona, but they said we didn't get the shot off in time.
SI.com: Dinwiddie was a big recruit for you coming out of southern California. What was it about him that made you want him so badly?
Boyle: USC passed on him and UCLA flirted with him, but we recruited him extremely hard. I think he visited Oregon and Harvard before he chose Colorado. I've never recruited somebody as a head coach as hard as I recruited him. I felt he was a must get -- his size, his skill, his demeanor, his maturity level. He was only about 165 pounds as a senior in high school, but he really had a great feel for the game.
SI.com: You played for Larry Brown at Kansas. What was the biggest philosophy you learned from him that you apply today?
Boyle: There are two things. First, when I got my first head coaching job, he said to me, "Make sure your teams defend every night and rebound every night, and you'll give yourself a chance to win." The second thing is that the game should be played unselfishly. You have to get your players to buy into the team concept.
SI.com: After you left Kansas, you became a commodities broker in Colorado and were making pretty good money. What made you give that up to go into coaching?
Boyle: I was coaching high school basketball on the side. In Colorado, the market closes at 2 o'clock, so I could be in the gym by 3:30. I realized that when my head hit the pillow at night, I was thinking about my basketball team. I wasn't thinking about interest rates. I played at Kansas with Mark Turgeon, and he was working for Jerry Green as an assistant at Oregon. They offered me their restricted earnings position for $16,000 a year, and I took it.
SI.com: I read where you got into a really bad car accident around that time. Did that play a role in your career change?
Boyle: Absolutely. I was driving to work one day and a lady who was driving east was looking into the sun, and she didn't see me roll into the intersection. I don't remember a thing that happened. I woke up in the hospital. The airbag saved my life, thank goodness. Something like that really changes your perspective on life.
* Last week's rankings in parentheses
1. Arizona (3)
2. Syracuse (4)
3. Ohio State (5)
4. Michigan State (1)
5. Duke (7)
6. Louisville (8)
7. Kansas (6)
8. Wisconsin (13)
9. Wichita State (9)
10. Kentucky (2)
11. Oklahoma State (11)
12. Memphis (12)
13. UConn (14)
14. Florida (10)
15. Iowa State (15)
16. Villanova (16)
17. Baylor (22)
18. Colorado (24)
19. Iowa (17)
20. Oregon (18)
21. UMass (19)
22. San Diego State (20)
23. North Carolina (NR)
24. New Mexico (21)
25. Boise State (25)
Dropped out: Dayton (23)
Four of my top 10 teams from last week lost, yet none was devastating. Yes, Michigan State looked bad in losing at home to North Carolina, but almost every top team has suffered a bad loss this season. I figured I'd give the Spartans a mulligan. Nor did it seem right to penalize Kansas and Florida for losing road games at the buzzer to Colorado and UConn, respectively. Kentucky deserved to take the biggest hit after its loss to Baylor in Arlington, Texas, but even that was no cause for shame.
The real head scratcher of the bunch is North Carolina. When you dominate a team on its home floor, you should be ranked above them, right? Not necessarily. North Carolina's two losses came against teams (Belmont and UAB) that I believe will be in the NCAA tournament. The easiest thing to do at this point is to throw a dart and rank the Tar Heels where it lands. Is 23 too high or too low? The answer is yes.
You might be surprised that I did not rank Missouri after its win over UCLA. Keep in mind that I was one of the few voters who had not ranked the Bruins in the first place, so that undercut Mizzou's case somewhat. Unfortunately, because the SEC is weak (again), Missouri is not scheduled to face a ranked team until Kentucky on Feb. 1.
As for other teams I left off my ballot, I know Indiana fans keep arguing for their Hoosiers, but IU looked overmatched in its loss at Syracuse last week. The good news for Indiana is four of its first seven league games are in Bloomington. The bad news is two of those are against Michigan State and Wisconsin.
It seems like I write about Pittsburgh's schedule every week, but despite the Panthers' undefeated record they still have not earned a rank-worthy win. Even if they beat Cincinnati on Dec. 17, that might not be enough. Still, if Pitt is one of the nation's last unbeaten teams in a few weeks, it will be tough to keep leaving them out.
I took my first serious look this week at Oklahoma, which has an 8-1 record. The Sooners' best wins have been over Alabama, Seton Hall and George Mason. Hardly a murderer's row. OU opens 2014 with a road date at Texas followed by home games against Kansas and Iowa State. So we'll know very soon whether this team is legit.
Among the mid-major schools, I checked in on Toledo, which is still rolling along at 8-0. The Rockets' best win came at Boston College on Nov. 14. If they want to get ranked, all they have to do is win at Kansas on Dec. 30. No problem, right?