Rested Wolverines seek rare win in Big Ten opener
Getting four full days off — no class, no practice — is a blessing for a college basketball player.
Everybody had a chance to go home, celebrate the holiday with family and friends. Michigan forward Moritz Wagner was able to go back to his home in Germany. Frontcourt mate D.J. Wilson flew back to Sacramento.
But with the Big Ten season opener looming New Year’s Day at Iowa, there was bound to be a price to pay. That happened Friday. Coach John Beilein put his squad through a grueling two-plus hour practice in Ann Arbor.
“It’s a little bit different not having a game this week,” Beilein said in a teleconference Friday. “Us and Ohio State, we’re the two teams that didn’t have a game in the opening rounds. We’ve been trying to be careful about giving our kids enough rest. It was a longer break than normal.
“Now the balance is, how do we get them in shape again? We’re concerned about that.”
The team practiced on Dec. 23 and lifted weights on the Dec. 24 before breaking for four days. The team returned to the practice court Wednesday night.
“That was more of a ‘Let’s not get injured, let’s just get your muscles moving,’” Beilein said.
They practiced for two hours on Thursday and two hours and then some Friday.
“It was good to be able to go home,” senior point guard and captain Derrick Walton Jr. said. “It’s just a matter of working out the kinks and getting back to doing what we do best. I don’t think (the break) will have any impact on our chemistry. We just need a few extra reps to get back in sync and to get our wind back.”
The unranked Wolverines enter the conference season with a 10-3 record and are coming off an ugly home win against Furman on Dec. 22. Besides scouting Iowa and trying to devise a plan to contain Big Ten leading scorer Peter Jok (21.9 points per game), Beilein spent a lot of time reviewing that Furman game.
“I just wanted to firm up some things,” he said. “We didn’t play our best, and credit Furman. But we didn’t execute well on offense…The film verified some good things, too.”
Beilein said he wants the half-court offense to run with more pace, more speed.
“We have a tendency when, if the play is not for me, I’m just going to jog to my spots,” he said. “If you are going to be a decoy, even when everybody in the place knows you are a decoy, you still have run and make yourself an option on the play.”
Michigan continues to make its living with the jump shot. In the last five games before the break, the Wolverines shot 50.5 percent from the floor and 42 percent from 3-point range. On the season, they have already drained 125 3-pointers.
Senior Zak Irvin leads the team averaging 14.1 points, Walton is averaging 12.4 and Wagner 11.5.
Defensively, they’ve allowed just 60.8 points per game, but that will be tested Sunday by the 6-foot-6 Jok.
“He reminds me so much of Tim Hardaway,” Beilein said. “He can get his shot any time he wants to. He’s an exceptional talent. He can shoot the three and he drives the lane and gets to the foul line. He’s a big challenge.”
Jok is coming off a rough game where he was held to 13 points in a loss at Purdue.
“Purdue will do that to a lot of people,” Beilein said. “We’re certainly not going to treat him like just another player and just say, ‘Play your normal roles.’ We’ll do some things special against him.
“But I’m probably won’t be sharing it with you.”
Jok aside, the Hawkeyes are a young team run by freshman point guard Jordan Bohannon, who replaces the graduated Mike Gesell. It could be an area the Wolverines try to exploit.
“They do a lot of the same stuff, lot of free-flow motion with a lot of specials in it,” Beilein said. “Gesell was way underrated, what he did with that team — 200 assists the year before, great job defensively…Bohannon, who has really played well for a freshman point guard, does not pick up where Gesell left off.”
This will be the first indoctrination to a full Big Ten slate for the Wolverines’ new frontcourt of Wagner and Wilson.
“They’ve been waiting for this,” Beilein said. “They mostly sat through the conference season last year, playing bits and pieces. They’ve been waiting for this opportunity. I think the emergence of D.J. has really helped us.
“But they’ve been working for this for a long time. I am not concerned about them being ready. They’ve been waiting for this.”
A win would be No. 200 at Michigan for Beilein, putting him with Johnny Orr (209 wins) as the only two members of Michigan’s 200-win club. And to get it at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, a den of horror for the Wolverines over the years, would be gratifying.
“Not a friendly place for us,” Beilein said. “Whether we come in with a Big Ten championship team or a Final Two team, in Iowa, we don’t usually play well.”
The Wolverines haven’t won in Iowa since 2011 and have lost the last four overall against the Hawkeyes.
“Not playing right away, the only good thing was that the kids got to watch the other games and see the intensity of the crowd and the games now that the season has started,” said Beilein, referencing Nebraska’s upset of Indiana and Northwestern beating Penn State. “It brings the realization that every night is going to be a war and you have to prepare the best you can to be ready for it.
“I think we practiced with that in mind.”
Michigan at Iowa
Tip-off: 2:15 p.m. Sunday, Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City, Iowa
Outlook: Michigan (10-3) is 0-2 in true road games. ...Iowa (8-6, 0-1 Big Ten) dropped its conference opener to Purdue. The Hawkeyes rank third in the Big Ten in scoring offense (83.4 points) and last in scoring defense (76.9 points).