Ann Arbor — It was a season opener for Michigan against Appalachian State on the Big Ten Network, so what could go wrong?
Plenty, of course.
And whether it was for old time’s sake or simply due to the newness of it all, we probably should’ve expected something like this from Juwan Howard’s head coaching debut
It took a dramatic turn from a rollicking start to a rocky finish before it finally ended with a sigh of relief. And a grinning head coach shaking his head during a postgame interview at center court, summing up the night like this: “That’s a part of growing.”
Surely, there are more growing pains to come. But for an opening act, this'll have to do.
Facing an Appalachian State hoops team that’s nowhere near the level of its football program, Michigan looked impressive early and then came unhinged late Tuesday night at the Crisler Center.
But first things first, I suppose. The Wolverines came out determined to dominate from the inside out, just the way you’d expect a team coached by Howard to play.
They started the game feeding the post, and center Jon Teske responded by scoring Michigan’s first 11 points, an opening flourish that also included a heat-check three after his first make from behind the arc. The 7-foot-1 senior actually had a double-double in his first 10 minutes on the court, while juniors Eli Brooks and Isaiah Livers were burying wide-open three-point shots en route to a 46-25 halftime lead.
That margin grew as large as 30 points early in the second half, with Brooks, who nearly tripled his career high with 24 points Tuesday, providing another spark. And when sophomore Brandon Johns threw down a dunk with 13 minutes left, a nail-biting finish was the last thing anyone would’ve predicted.
But then the Mountaineers went on a 27-3 run over a 10-minute stretch as Michigan struggled at both ends of the court.
Turnovers, missed free throws, defensive lapses. Nerves, too, at a certain point. Three-point attempts that were falling in the first half started clanging off the front of the rim. They weren't pushing the ball in transition, yet they were rushing in the halfcourt offense, while Appalachian State's odd 3-2 zone -- or 2-1-2 zone, "or whatever it was," Brooks shrugged -- only added to the confusion.
And with each empty possession — five consecutive turnovers in one stretch — it was clear this Michigan team was getting lost in it's own jumbled thoughts.
"Guys start overthinking, over-analyzing," Howard said. "One thing I do not want our team to do is start over-analyzing every possession in their head, and putting their head down."
There was some of that Tuesday, to be sure, particularly on the defensive end. There's also an obvious confidence gap offensively between the upperclassmen on the roster and a sophomore class that's still trying to fit in the rotation. With highly-touted newcomer Franz Wagner idled by a broken hand to start the season, there's an opening on the wing. But David DeJulius and Adrien Nunez combined for five points on six shots in 41 minutes in the opener.
Then again, of the Wolverines' 10 second-half turnovers, seven were credited to Livers and trusted point guard Zavier Simpson, who finished with a career-worst six for the game. And the team total of 17 turnovers was a number the Wolverines reached just once in the previous seven seasons under John Beilein. Some of that's a natural function of a faster tempo and more possessions, but for now the hope is it's more a function of new faces in new places in a new system.
“We got a little tense,” Teske admitted after the Wolverines had escaped with a 79-71 victory. “We were up 30 points. We gotta relax, I think. …
"We just gotta keep that foot on the pedal.”
But until they learn to do that — and it could be weeks or months before they do, given all the change this program has endured the last six months in the wake of Beilein's abrupt departure for the NBA — Michigan fans should expect a bumpy ride.
First, though, there was this trip down memory lane everyone had been waiting for since the day in late May when a teary-eyed Howard had stepped the podium and announced, “I’m back!”
This season’s pregame hype video at Crisler Center is narrated by his former Fab Five teammate, Jalen Rose, who also surprised his pal by showing up in the arena just before tipoff. Rose brought his mother, Jeanne -- he also took a spin around the court firing a promotional t-shirt cannon during one of the timeouts Tuesday night -- and they were joined in the stands by another Fab Five alum, Jimmy King.
“That means a lot to me,” Howard said. “It was emotional to see that."
Howard said also he received a text message from Chris Webber wishing him luck and a call from Ray Jackson before the game. And there were others, too.
“Jason Bossard, Leon Derricks … the list goes on,” Howard said. “A brotherhood. That’s what’s so special about college. The relationships you build, the adversity that you go through. That’s a part of growing up that you look back on and you just laugh about it.”
Looking back at this one, that’s exactly what they did. The postgame locker room was celebratory, not subdued, in spite of the way it nearly ended.
Michigan was only up 4 with 20 seconds to play. But, as Teske reminded everyone later, “A win is a win.”
And when a reporter asked Brooks how Howard’s sideline demeanor compared to that of his predecessor when things were unraveling on the court, the way they were Tuesday in the second half, the junior couldn’t help but laugh.
“I don’t have enough data on that,” Brooks replied, smiling. “We’ll see.”
Based on the season opener, we probably will soon enough.
John Niyo, Matt Charboneau and James Hawkins preview the Michigan and Michigan State basketball seasons, which get underway on Tuesday. The Detroit News