Wolverines eager to match up against No. 2 UCLA

David Goricki, The Detroit News


Ann Arbor — Michigan coach John Beilein is looking forward to seeing how the Wolverines measure up against one of the nation’s elite teams.

UCLA's TJ Leaf is playing like a veteran starter.

Michigan plays Saturday night at No. 2 UCLA, a team that upset top-ranked Kentucky, 97-92, this past weekend to put an end to the Wildcats’ 42-game home winning streak.

This isn’t as big as when Michigan and UCLA played for the national title in 1965, a game won by the Bruins, 91-80, or, for that matter, as big as the first-round NCAA Tournament game in 1975, 103-91 overtime win by the Bruins, who went on to win the national championship that year, as well.

Still, this is a big measuring stick game for the Wolverines, especially since the Bruins have one of the premier point guards in the nation in 6-foot-6 true freshman Lonzo Ball, along with 6-10, 225-pound freshman forward T.J. Leaf.

Beilein knows Leaf all too well, taking multiple trips to California to recruit him with Leaf also taking visits to Ann Arbor to check out Michigan’s campus before ultimately picking UCLA.

Ball and Leaf are playing like veteran starters. Ball contributed 14 points, seven assists and six rebounds in the win at Kentucky and Leaf had 17 points, 13 rebounds and five assists.

Ball, who models his game after Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, is averaging 14.6 points and 9.3 assists. Leaf is averaging 17.2 points and 9.4 rebounds for the Bruins, who are averaging 97 points and making 10 of 22 3-pointers a game.

“The kids are excited about it, going into a great environment to play a top-five team and see what we can do,” Beilein said before practice Thursday afternoon. The team was to fly to Los Angeles Thursday evening.

One thing Beilein knows for sure is that the Wolverines are going to have to play much better than they did in their 53-50 win over Texas Tuesday night at Crisler to compete against UCLA, let alone win.

Beilein also knows the Wolverines will have to get up and down the court and score more in transition, knowing it will be tough to score in the half court against UCLA’s size and quickness.

“This is a team that will really get out and run and some of the teams they have played have got into that running game and we’re certainly going to run when we can, but at the same time we have to make sure we take good shots and then make them take hard shots,” Beilein said. “We have to get back on defense and not only get back, but identify their shooters because they have shooters all over the place.

“We look at every opportunity as not just that game, but to try and improve who we are. We’re playing too much half-court basketball and we have to get up and down the court whether it’s pushing it — I mean, right now Derrick (point guard Walton) has been the only push guy and he’s got to do even more there — but traditionally we have multiple push men. We’re working on that today.”

Beilein knows the Wolverines face a possible blowout.

“This is the ultimate gauge right now of who we are against a high-level team,” said Beilein, talking about how his top-10 defense (58.2 points allowed) stacks up against an elite offense. “I think what’s really compelling right now is what Ball and Leaf have done to that team. That was a team that was sub-.500 (15-17) last year, only lost one player, but those two are just exceptional.

“There are so many freshmen we’ve seen come in and struggle a bit in that first year, but Leaf and Ball have just been exceptional. Our defense will really be challenged because Ball has nine assists a game and they have four guys shooting 40 percent from three.”

Isaac Hamilton, a 6-5 senior guard, leads the Bruins in scoring (18.1 points), making 29 of 64 3-pointers (.453). Six-3 senior Bryce Alford — son of UCLA head coach Steve Alford — is averaging 15.3 points and shooting .415 from deep range, and 6-1 sophomore Aaron Holiday is at 12.9 points, making 53.3 percent of his threes (16-of-30).

Thomas Welsh, a 7-0, 245-pound junior, averages nearly a double-double (11.1 points, 9.6 rebounds) and provides size inside with Leaf.

Walton knows he is one of the leaders for the Wolverines and must play better than he did in the win over Texas. He scored seven on 3-of-9 shooting (1-of-5 threes) and had more turnovers (five) than assists (two) in 39 minutes. Beilein also needs to get more from 6-6 senior guard Zak Irvin, who had a similar off-night (three points in 36 minutes, 1-of-8 shooting).

Luckily for the Wolverines, 6-10, 240-pound sophomore Moe Wagner bailed them out with his 15-point night, scoring on a putback for the lead, then blocking a shot in the final seconds for the victory over Texas. And, 6-10, 240-pound sophomore D.J. Wilson stepped up as well (13 points, 5-of-6 shooting, six rebounds).

“Me and Zak (Irvin) talked about it when we got home,” Walton said. “It wasn’t one of our best showings and as much as you want to harp and learn on stuff like that, you just can’t carry that into the next game. We have a great opportunity in front of us to play better and kind of get back to what we usually do and that’s what we’re all focusing on right now.”

Walton, Irvin and their teammates will be working on that much-talked-about transition game.

“At this level it’s hard to score in the halfcourt so as many as we can steal in the break is always the key, but we’ve got to take the initiative to get out and really want to score in transition, make things happen in that part of the game,” Walton said. “When you go up against great length, the best way to negate it is kind of shot fake and get as many easy baskets as possible in transition. You don’t want to get into a halfcourt battle against guys with 7-foot-3 wingspans.”



Michigan at UCLA

Tip-off: 8 p.m. Saturday, Pauley Pavilion, Los Angeles

TV/radio: ESPN2/WWJ

Records: Michigan 7-2, 2 UCLA 9-0

Outlook: Michigan will put up its outstanding defense (58.2 points, .424 opponents shooting) against one of the nation’s top offenses in UCLA, which averages 97 points and is coming off a 97-92 win over previously top-ranked Kentucky last weekend in Lexington.