Ann Arbor — Michigan coach Juwan Howard’s first official game was quite the roller-coaster ride.
The Wolverines were rocking and rolling in their regular-season opener on Tuesday night before everything nearly went off the rails.
A 30-point lead with 13 minutes to play melted away and turned into a four-point game in the final minute. And it wasn’t until junior guard Eli Brooks and senior guard Zavier Simpson combined to make six free throws over the 20 final seconds that Howard and his team could breathe a sigh of relief.
“Hopefully I get some sleep,” Howard said after Michigan held on for a 79-71 win over Appalachian State. “Hopefully I do not play every play, every possession in my head as I'm trying to go to sleep but I know I will. I will have some sleep disturbance."
That’s because Howard probably wasn’t counting sheep. More than likely, he was counting Michigan’s 17 turnovers — the team’s most since it posted the same number against Marquette on Nov. 17, 2016.
Of those 17 turnovers, six were committed by Simpson and 10 came in the second half — with nine occurring during Appalachian State’s 27-3 run over a 10-minute stretch that turned what appeared to be a laugher into no laughing matter.
During that dismal span, the lowlight was when the Wolverines turned the ball over on five consecutive possessions.
"(It was) a lot of us forcing stuff,” senior center Jon Teske said. “Give credit to their defense. They played really well in the second half, too. We were kind of lazy with the ball a little bit in the second half, forcing stuff when the window wasn't there. But give credit to their defense. They closed down those holes, they got their hands on the ball and were able to deflect, get out in transition and run. We just have to take care of the ball more and I trust Eli, X (Simpson) and Dave (DeJulius) all to do that.”
Brooks said Appalachian State “showed a little harder” in the second half by trapping and hard hedging ball screens, and Michigan “fell into the trap” of letting the Mountaineers set up on defense instead of attacking them like they did in the first half.
Teske called most of the second-half turnovers “silly” and said there were several instances where the team should’ve pulled the ball up and used up more of the shot clock. He added the huge lead probably played a part in some of the risky passes that were being attempted.
“Maybe we felt too comfortable. X, if he sees you open he's going to try to thread the needle,” Teske said. “He's a great passer and we trust him to make that pass. Sometimes it's deflected and sometimes you've got to live with it. He's going to learn from those mistakes. I know he'll watch the film and he'll see if we're open or not. We're going to trust him to keep making those passes because we all know he can make those in a game.”
While some of Michigan’s uncharacteristic turnovers were a result of errant passes — like one cross-court attempt that nearly flew into the stands — Brooks said it was “tough to tell” how many came from the team trying to get off quick, open shots.
Of course, playing at a faster pace will lead to more possessions and more opportunities to throw the ball away. Against Appalachian State, the Wolverines finished with a 23.6-percent turnover rate on 72 possessions (per KenPom, Michigan never averaged more than 66 possessions per 40 minutes under former coach John Beilein).
But for a team that typically prides itself on taking care of the ball and has ranked among the nation’s best in assist-turnover ratio, the 28 combined turnovers in the season opener and exhibition against Saginaw Valley State are not ideal.
"I feel like (playing faster) will lead to some turnovers, but there's a lot of turnovers out there that we could've controlled,” Brooks said. “I think it comes with it, but you can minimize a lot of the turnovers that we had in the exhibition game and this game.
“There's a learning curve and it's going to take some time to find reads, what shot to take, because turnovers can come from not taking the shot you're supposed to take. So, learning those two things is going to help a lot.”
Howard said when he looks back at the film, he’ll identify areas where the team can improve and “make sure it does not happen next game.”
And for the sake of his sleep, cutting down on the turnovers will likely be high on his list.
"You have to be fundamentally sound with the basketball. You can't be careless,” Howard said. “I've always learned from my old high school coach two hands on the ball, make sure the guy who you pass it to is open before you release the basketball.
“Those words were said in our huddle. Unfortunately, we didn't do a good job of applying it."