Michigan uses balance to help become basketball behemoth

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Guard Charles Matthews, right, was one of four Michigan starters to take at least nine shots and score in double figures Sunday night against Northwestern.

Ann Arbor — Northwestern coach Chris Collins has seen Michigan twice this season.

Each time, he has witnessed his Wildcats get taken down in different fashion.

In the first meeting on Dec. 4, Collins watched freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis and sophomore guard Jordan Poole combine for 38 points as the Wolverines escaped with a two-point win despite getting only three points from redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews and playing the final six minutes without junior guard Zavier Simpson.

Then in Sunday’s second encounter, Collins put a focus on preventing Brazdeikis, Poole and Matthews from getting into the driving lanes. The result? Junior center Jon Teske and Simpson teamed up to score 41 points and shoot 8-for-15 from 3-point range in a 20-point win.

Two game plans. Two losses. Two different guys stepping up each time.

If anybody has found out how difficult it is to stop Michigan this season, Collins is certainly the leading candidate.

“That's kind of why they're 17-0. Seventeen teams have tried, 17 have failed,” Collins said. “I think only two teams have come within 10 points of them. When you play 17 games and 15 of them are double-figure games, you've got a real good thing going.

“They don't have many flaws. They're well-coached on both ends. They make it hard. They put pressure on you offensively and defensively. I’m just a big fan of their team. I feel like they're a team that can compete with anybody that I've seen or played against so far this year in the country.”

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Michigan has proven that thanks to one overriding strength: balance.

The Wolverines never get thrown off-kilter because on any given night any of the five starters can lead the team in scoring, with Brazdeikis, Matthews, Poole and Simpson proving capable of posting 20-point performances.

And seemingly no matter what an opponent throws at Michigan defensively  hedging ball screens, clogging the lane, denying out on the perimeter, constantly pressuring the ball  it has the personnel to overcome it. Try to shut down one guy, two more will make you pay.

Through six Big Ten games so far, Michigan’s five starters are all averaging at least 11.7 points and shooting at least 43 percent from the field. And in terms of shot distribution, there’s not a large disparity among Simpson (33-for-71), Brazdeikis (31-for-68), Matthews (28-for-65), Poole (30-for-57) and Teske (25-for-45).

Look no further than this past week as a perfect example. At Illinois, all five Wolverines starters finished with at least 10 points and attempted at least eight shots from field.

Then against Northwestern, every starter but Poole  who was arguably the team’s top player through December and the first week of January  took at least nine shots and scored in double figures, highlighted by Simpson’s career-high 24 points and Teske’s career-high tying 17 points.

“I think as we go down the road we're going to need that,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “This team has a capacity if we get that out of those two (Simpson and Teske), I wouldn't like to guard that. And plus, they're also two premier defenders so that's a really good mix when you have that type of (balance)  they're keying on Jordan, they're keying on Charles, they're loading up on Iggy. Playing off those two when you have that, we were well-rounded and that would be a great trend.”

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On top of that, there’s no liability or weak link among the starting five on the defensive end. And even when Michigan turns to sophomore forward Isaiah Livers and sophomore guard Eli Brooks in the seven-man rotation, there’s seemingly no drop-off on either end of the floor.

While Beilein doesn’t like to compare “great with great” when it comes to current and past teams, Collins has seen plenty of Michigan squads that he has respected.

Collins wouldn’t go as far as to say this is the best or most talented team Beilein has had, but his eyes told him one thing: this is arguably the most complete Michigan squad he has coached against throughout his career.

“The thing I like about them is they don't really have a lot of holes. They're terrific defensively, they're connected defensively,” Collins said. “Teske quietly does a lot of things for them. To me, he anchors their defense. His ability to play pick-and-roll defense, his ability to guard the post, it allows those guards and wings to really be aggressive. Then offensively, I mean, Coach Beilein is always going to run good stuff. They're spaced well, they can make shots.

“In terms of that, it's probably the most well-rounded team. It's a really good mix of guys who know their roles. They have a terrific leader in Simpson, a great coach in Coach Beilein and they're one of the teams that should have a chance to play with anybody as you go forward when you're talking about Big Ten and then beyond in the NCAA Tournament."


Twitter: @jamesbhawkins