The secret of Michigan's success: Keep on running

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Michigan's Charles Matthews heads to the basket with Maryland's Darryl Morsell defending in the first half.

Ann Arbor — Isn’t it fun to run?

It’s a question mic’d up Michigan coach John Beilein asked redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews as he headed to the bench midway through the first half on Saturday.

The beaming smile on Matthews’ face said it all. The “heck yeah” response merely drove it home.

But there hasn’t been a ton of fast-break fun for the No. 6 Wolverines in recent weeks. They hadn’t been getting out in transition and running the break like Beilein has wanted to, an area that was a “major emphasis” in practice and film heading into the weekend.

“Those film (sessions) are deadly, but you learn so much from it, especially when you go that day and we run through situations,” sophomore forward Isaiah Livers said. “Like we can't have three on one side in transition and leave X (Zavier Simpson) by himself. Someone has got to go run that left lane or right wing or fall behind him and set a drag screen. It was small stuff like that preventing our transition offense.”

None of those little things slowed down Michigan in Saturday’s 65-52 win over No. 24 Maryland at Crisler Center.

The Wolverines finished with 14 fast-break points against the Terrapins, their most since 19 against Illinois on Jan. 10 and two points shy of their recent three-game total against Penn State, Wisconsin and Rutgers.

The transition offense was ripping and roaring over the first 10 minutes of the game as five of Michigan’s first 10 made shots came on the fast break. Whether it was off live-ball turnovers or missed shots, the Wolverines raced out to a 14-2 lead that featured two uncontested baskets by Matthews.

That gap continued to widen thanks to a stretch in which four of five made field goals came on the break, highlighted by sophomore guard Jordan Poole finding a trailing Livers for a dunk that gave Michigan a 15-point first-half cushion.

“In that 14-2 lead, I did see Iggy (Brazdeikis) actually running a lane,” Livers said. “He’s not the fastest guy on the team. He usually doesn't sprint his lanes as Coach B would say, but he did a really good job of creating space for others. That small cut on a fast-break can get Jordan, Charles, Zavier, anybody open. That just helps anybody, including him. I did that for him. … All you got to do is run the lane and it'll leave the trailer wide open.”

Above all, it was Michigan’s dominant post defense that allowed the transition offense to thrive, particularly by quickly turning Maryland’s misses around the basket into opportune rushes.

And it didn’t matter who came down with the rebound. Every Wolverine other than junior center Jon Teske was immediately turning and starting to push the ball the other way.

“There were some times where I was even leading the break,” Livers said. “I was like, 'Wow.' That rarely happens. I usually get the ball and Zavier is in my face, so I just pitch it to him. I led the break a couple times and that's great.

“Iggy had, like, two assists in transition. (Beilein) loves when four-man pushes the ball out. It's really hard to guard because the other four-man is not going to guard the four in transition. It's like having all guards out there. It felt a lot different. It felt good.”

Michigan’s transition offense eventually idled as Maryland stopped coughing the ball up and started connecting on more shots. But when the Terrapins made their push in the second half, the Wolverines turned back to the fast break when they were desperate for easy buckets.

After Maryland cut the deficit to three with 10:21 to play, Livers grabbed the rebound and immediately threw the ball ahead to Poole, who turned into a one-man break by outrunning four Maryland defenders and sidestepping another for a driving layup.

Then over three minutes later, one of the most critical swings of the game unfolded. With Maryland trailing by five, Anthony Cowan Jr. drove hard to the rim and missed a point-blank layup. Michigan secured the rebound, had numbers going the other way and cashed in on the fast-break opportunity with Simpson feeding Brazdeikis for a key 3-pointer.

“I would say probably the last week or two Coach B has been working with us on our fast break and pressing us about finding the open lanes,” Simpson said. “He's been on our wings about running. I told my wings, ‘Run and I'll find you.’ I found a couple.”

Beilein made it known if he could go back and work on anything over the summer, his team's fast-break execution would be near the top of the list.

He said his players see their analytical numbers and are aware they are a “very middling” offensive transition team. Yet, Beilein put part of that blame on himself, adding he took for granted that his players understood how to get wide in fast-break situations when they didn’t.

“We showed them stats from other years and I said, 'We're doing the exact thing. We don't have a new fast break,’ ” Beilein said. “We don't have almost any rules other than get wide, make sure we fill some lanes. We didn't change our game plan so this one is not on the coaching staff right now. This is on you.

“You've got to run, and you've got to look up. … Maybe we get a rebound and three guys run in the same lane. One of them could've taken the right lane, but they're not seeing it.”

On Saturday, Michigan appeared to finally start opening its eyes.

“Coach B says you guys are so great at offensive transition in practice, but when we get in the game you guys seem like you want to jog your lanes and don't run all the way through,” Livers said. “He said, ‘Go score, go dunk something. That's transition. That's an easy bucket.’ When we emphasize it like that before a game, we're all going to run. We've got to run.”

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins