It hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows for Michigan this season.
Disjointed stretches have left the Wolverines battling through adversity and staving off upset-minded North Florida, Central Michigan and Southern Miss in wins that weren’t exactly dominant or comfortable.
And more bumps likely lie ahead in Hawaii, where Michigan’s mettle will be put to the test at the Maui Invitational with an eight-team field that includes No. 6 Wichita State and No. 13 Notre Dame.
“I think we’re in a transition right now where we lost so much from last year, but we have some good young players,” Michigan coach John Beilein said Sunday at a press conference. “Now they’re going to get these great opportunities to do it on the big stage, and there is no stage bigger, really, except maybe the NCAA Tournament and this tip-off tournament.
“We’ll see what they do when the lights come on, and if they can’t get it done right, we will eventually do it. But this is a great test.”
The Wolverines open their three-game, three-day stretch against LSU (2-0), a team that is rebuilding under first-year coach Will Wade after tying for last place in the Southeastern Conference and finishing with a 10-21 record last season.
Wade admitted his team is a “major work in progress” despite a 99-59 win over Alcorn State and 105-86 victory over Samford. LSU’s offense leads the nation in field-goal percentage (60.5 percent) and ranks fourth in points per game (102). But on defense, LSU ranks 181st in points allowed (72.5) and 229th in field-goal percentage defense (44.3 percent).
A win over LSU likely would pit Michigan against Notre Dame and preseason All-American Bonzie Colson, which would serve as a prime chance for the Wolverines to boost their resume for March and learn where they stand.
“It’s a measuring stick,” Beilein said of the tournament. “It’s nothing more than a benchmark of where you are. It really is a great opportunity for our kids to say, ‘OK, we have a lot of work to do as a team, I have a lot of work individually and our coaches have a lot of work to do,’ and then you get on with your season.”
Here are a few things to keep an eye on during the Maui Invitational:
■ Junior center Moritz Wagner has had a quiet start to the season by his standards. He’s averaging 13.3 points and 9.7 rebounds through three games but hasn’t been as assertive and is shooting just 1-for-10 from 3-point range. This type of tournament and stage could help Wagner rediscover his swagger and reemerge as a dominant presence for the Wolverines.
■ Sophomore Zavier Simpson appeared to have the edge for the starting point guard spot after posting career highs in assists (nine) and points (13) over the first two games. But grad transfer Jaaron Simmons has seen a steady uptick in minutes per game — going from 10 against North Florida to 14 against Central Michigan to 19 against Southern Miss — and could be in line for more playing time after he was on the floor for the majority of Michigan’s 23-3 game-changing run against Southern Miss. Meanwhile, freshman Eli Brooks appears to be the odd man out after playing just six total minutes the past two games.
■ Beilein said it was doubtful he would use two bigs on the floor at the same time, but sophomore center Jon Teske is certainly giving him something to think about. Teske has been productive off the bench the past two games, with 14 points, 12 rebounds, two blocks and a steal in 25 minutes. While playing Teske at the five and Wagner at the four is worth considering, it’s also worth noting Wagner has struggled to defend smaller, quicker forwards and the move would take away from his strength of attacking opposing centers off the dribble.
Michigan vs. LSU
Tip-off: 11:30 p.m. Monday, Lahaina Civic Center, Lahaina, Hawaii
TV/radio: ESPNU/WWJ 950
Records: Michigan is 3-0. LSU is 2-0
Outlook: Michigan is making its fourth appearance in the Maui Invitational and is looking to win the tournament for the first time since 1988. The Wolverines most recently finished third in 2011.