Another exciting year
by Craig Ross
From the December, 2018 issue
The day after the U-M men's basketball team played Villanova in November, two men overheard talking sports at Lucky's Market were asked if they were excited about the game. "Are you kidding me?" one asked. "Most surprising win of my lifetime."
"Wait a minute," the other said. "U-M won last night? That wasn't supposed to happen."
The team's extraordinary run last year generated extraordinary excitement. In some ways it started as a typical season under head coach John Beilein: they looked unsteady until the middle of the schedule and then caught fire. But this time, they really burned up the court: Michigan won fourteen consecutive games before losing the NCAA championship final to Villanova.
The Wolverines took their revenge in November, demolishing the Wildcats on their home court. It was their third win in as many games--and each time, there was a half where they held their opponents to no more than seventeen points.
To understand how remarkable this is, consider that in Beilein's first ten years at Michigan, his teams averaged a mediocre seventy-third in defensive efficiency, well below the Big Ten average. Last season, they were third in the country and first in the Big Ten.
Driven by elite defenders Zavier Simpson and Charles Matthews and assistant coach Luke Yaklich, who obsesses over defensive numbers, Michigan's defense powered their late-season run--which was predicated less on scoring, and more on keeping the other team from scoring. This season's early victories confirm that with Ignas Brazdeikis joining Matthews, Simpson, Isaiah Livers, and Jon Teske, Beilein will once again field one of the best defensive teams in the country.
The six-foot-seven Brazdeikis, from Lithuania by way of Toronto, is also poised to join Matthews as one of Michigan's two highest scorers. Which highlights Beilein's problem: the Wolverines were just so-so on offense last year--and all of that team's best shooters are gone.
This year's team is young--nine of twelve on the roster are freshmen or sophomores--and in their early games, they had trouble putting the ball in the hole. But as Michigan proved last season, a strong defense can carry a team a long way. For opponents, playing the Wolverines is like playing sandpaper, and the shooting should come along.
Another final may be too much to ask for, but Michigan has a good shot at a third straight Big Ten Championship and a run in the NCAAs. It should be another exciting year.
[Originally published in December, 2018.]
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