Redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews talks about prevailing in Wednesday's game of runs against North Carolina in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. James Hawkins, The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — You usually don’t see it this early, and often can’t say it this early. But this looks like a team that knows exactly what it’s about, and how good it can be.
The Wolverines played defense with such effort and energy Wednesday night, they made it look easy, and made a powerful opponent look rattled. They swatted shots, dove on the floor, drove to the basket, and for good measure, drove North Carolina coach Roy Williams batty.
If you thought No. 7 Michigan’s 84-67 stomping of the No. 11 Tar Heels at a sold-out Crisler Center looked familiar, that’s because it was. We saw it late last season when they rolled through the Big Ten tournament all the way to the national championship game. We saw it earlier this season, when they crushed Villanova, the team that beat them for the title. November games can make fools of us all in a long season, but at least you can say this: Michigan has similar compelling ingredients as a year ago, and maybe a bit more.
The Wolverines now have a precocious freshman, 6-foot-7 Ignas Brazdeikis, who scores inside and outside and pops a muscle flex after a big shot. He scored 24 against the Tar Heels. They have the same fierce guard threesome in Charles Matthews, Zavier Simpson and Jordan Poole, and they all took turns doing what they do.
From 10 points down early to a 21-point lead in a flash, the Wolverines were a blur of maize, and believe it or not, the 17-point margin was the closest game in their 7-0 start. They don’t want to say they’ve picked up where they left off, because they did lose three key players from the national finalists, including Moe Wagner. But Brazdeikis looks fully capable of playing the Wagner role, and if possible, the defense could be even better, led by Matthews and Simpson.
“We just want to continue to be who we are,” said Matthews, who added 21 points. “We went on a good run at the end of last year, and we basically said, let’s not wait until the end of the year to be special.”
Back on their Heels
Don’t be mistaken, there’s plenty of work ahead. John Beilein still needs to develop a deeper bench, and the Wolverine absolutely need to solve their free-throw bugaboo. They actually shot better on 3-pointers (11-for-22) than free throws (11-for-23).
But against a talented North Carolina team that starts two prime freshmen and brings another off the bench, Michigan was relentless. The Tar Heels were hot early, but in the second half, Michigan outshot them 59-32 percent, and a team averaging 96.6 points per game couldn’t reach 70.
“It’s very frustrating right now,” Williams said. “I feel I’ve done the worst job of coaching in my 31 years. Give Michigan credit, but this is the most frustrated I’ve ever been. I got no positive things to say. My coaching sucks.”
He was frustrated by his own team’s sloppy effort, but also by Michigan’s confounding attack.
“They’ve got five guys that can handle the ball, they’ve got great spacing, their defense has been really good,” Williams added. “They have a sense of urgency on the defensive end. They’re hard to screen because they fight through the screens, and if they switch, they communicate.”
And when it gets testy, the Wolverines got Teske — 7-footer Jon Teske, who ignited the crowd with five blocked shots, as well as a diving save of the ball that led to Poole’s 3-pointer as the first half ended. Poole was five-for-eight on 3-pointers, and again embodies the swagger the Wolverines have developed.
By the second half, they had snapped the Tar Heels’ spirit and broken their will, which led to Williams’ harsh assessment of his team. It actually was a strong endorsement of Beilein’s team, which ranks near the top of the nation in all sorts of defensive categories, allowing only 48.3 points per game. Yes, it’s not even December yet, and the Big Ten season opens Saturday when Purdue comes to town. But this defensive disposition has been evident for more than a year, led by assistant Luke Yaklich,
Told of Williams’ comments, Beilein smiled.
“That’s one of the biggest compliments I’ve ever had, or our teams have ever had,” Beilein said. “It’s not like we’re trying to frustrate you. We’re trying to keep people from scoring baskets. Charles is possessed at defense; he and Z are the most driven defensive players I’ve ever coached.”
Michigan coach talks about his team's performance in Wednesday's 84-67 thrashing of North Carolina in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. James Hawkins, The Detroit News
This was the Tar Heels’ first visit to Crisler Center, and you wonder if teams still aren’t completely aware what the Wolverines have been doing. They don’t have future NBA stars that allow them to glide, so Beilein always is watching for any lessening of focus.
The word he used — “possessed” — is a good one, as long as the Wolverines keep everything in perspective. In a moment of exuberance afterward, Brazdeikis said they were on a “Revenge Tour” similar to the football team. Uh, it’s probably best to move on from that whole theme, even though the Wolverines already beat Villanova (73-46) and just beat North Carolina, which hammered them early last season.
A few days after the football team’s crushing loss to Ohio State, we were reminded how much confidence and defensive intensity matter.
“We needed to win those games and bring our confidence up, and I feel like we’re playing at a very high level right now,” Brazdeikis said. “I saw in the second half all their emotions were really down. We told each other, we need to pounce on this and go even harder and just put our foot on their throats, and that’s what we did.”
They did it with incredible energy. In one stretch in the second half, Teske swatted a shot by Leaky Black, and seconds later, Matthews did the same thing to Black. Simpson quickly went the other way for a layup and a 58-42 lead, and Crisler had seldom been louder.
At this time a year ago, the Wolverines still were searching for their identity, even for their lineup combinations. They weren’t yet sure what they were capable of, and didn’t fully discover it until tournament time. It’s a long way from here to there, but they don’t appear to have lost any of their drive or disposition, and actually might have gained a bit more.