Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Michigan 75, LSU 77: Going for two

Welcome to this odd part of the year, when the intensity of a waning college football season, haggard from the sleepless intensity of unrelenting expectation, overlaps with the low-burning flame of early-season college basketball — a brooding bonfire next to a candle smelling sweetly of Maui.

At the very least, college basketball is a welcomed reprieve from what has been a fairly unexciting football season. On the gridiron, each win has been a stultifying drudge. The losses? Well, you know. Don't gaze too long into the maw of the Michigan internet, where you're likely to hear the crescendoing drumbeat of southeast Michigan's passionate cohort of sports talk radio callers.

Look away, instead, in the direction of this nice, low-stakes, Thanksgiving week basketball.

So, naturally, as you settled in for some stress-free sports and aesthetically pleasing B-roll of Hawaiian scenery, Michigan went on to blow a 9-point lead with just over 5 minutes to play en route to a 77-75 loss against LSU.

I hadn't had the chance to catch the Wolverines this season before tonight, but from everything that has happened to date, this is clearly a team that will spend much of this season incubating. A lot of new faces, plus a year in which Moritz Wagner is the guy instead of a guy, and growing pains are expected.

At this point in the year, you're mostly looking for competitiveness and incremental improvements, sometimes so minute they might be represented by individual moments or plays. Add those up, especially for the young guys, and you eventually accrue enough to reach a eureka moment or two later — the light switch, on.

Michigan got off to a rough start. Wagner (24 points) and Charles Matthews (28 points) carried the Wolverines, contributing 9 points apiece in the first half. However, Michigan got only got 4 points from the other three starters in the opening 20 minutes (Duncan Robinson and Zavier Simpson went a combined 0-for-1 in the first half).

Despite shooting just 3-for-11 from beyond the arc as a team (and an eFG% of 46.6 percent) and allowing LSU to rebound 50 percent of its first-half misses, the Wolverines found themselves down just 31-29 at the break.

Wagner found some success in the two-man game with Matthews, popping for some nice mid-range jumpers. Matthews himself flashed his athleticism, including a nice spin in the post for two and other strong takes to the basket. It's still not clear what Matthews will ultimately be, but it's obvious the talent and athleticism is there; it was on display in grand fashion tonight.

Is Matthews a legitimate No. 2 option on a good team throughout an entire season? I don't know, but it's apparent he will have to be until some other players get a little more Beilein coaching. (And with a team-high 28 points, he was No. 1 tonight.)

It's a long season, but the offense is a work in progress. Now, it's basically a combination of Wagner making NBA-level moves and Matthews leveraging his athleticism and hard work into offense.

Otherwise, Michigan got very little (or nothing at all) from most everyone else (save Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and his 12 points on 13 shots).

Robinson's scoreless stretch ended with 9 minutes to play, swishing a triple in transition for a 55-53 lead, its first of the game.

Not long after, freshman Eli Brooks dropped a nifty bounce pass back to a trailing Wagner in transition, who buried a three to extend the lead to 58-53. While Brooks didn't show up much in the points category (4 points), his confidence was obvious. Some freshmen dribble the ball like they're carrying a hot plate they desperately want to put down — Brooks doesn't appear to be one of those freshmen. The turnover late? Freshman stuff, unfortunately, but better now than later.

Now, the usual "this is November college basketball" caveats apply, but after 40 minutes of basketball tonight, it seems like Michigan this season will rely on...the mid-range game?



Beilein's Michigan program has been reinvented a couple of times in the last decade, and it appears as if this team will adapt to add another iteration to that history. While Michigan gave up 77 points on 1.24 points per possession, the defense had stretches of solid play.

After Michigan battled back from a 7-point deficit, the Wolverines coughed up a hairball late, as freshman guard Tremont Waters went off for LSU and Matthews couldn't bury both of his free throws for the tie with 9 seconds to play.

The loss isn't a big deal. You'd like a win, sure, but it's more about seeing signs of potential. Wagner is Wagner. Matthews might be something real, too. Abdur-Rahkman will once again be the desperation creator, the wheeling late-shot-clock freelancer. Brooks had some nice moments, including a nice assist in the second half and a confident three in the first; he also looked like a freshman in other moments (e.g. the crucial late turnover).

Michigan didn't get much from anyone else. Ibi Watson was ineffective, while Simpson and Simmons were non-factors. Robinson hit one three, but the bigger concern is the fact that he put up just four shots. While LSU's Brandon Sampson played admirably tenacious defense, Michigan has to find more than four shot attempts for a shooter of Robinson's caliber.

As is usually the case at this point in the season, there are many questions wanting answers. The answers for this Beilein team might be different from those for any other team Beilein has had in Ann Arbor.

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