Thursday, November 20, 2008

A signature win for the young Wolverines


It was only one game in a long season. It only counts for one non-conference win.

But don't think that Michigan's 55-52 upset of No. 4 UCLA Thursday night will be forgotten anytime soon. Instead, it might be remembered as the signature victory that marked the beginning of the Wolverines' climb to respectability.

This much can be taken from the game: John Beilein has the program headed in the right direction.

Are the 3-0 Wolverines an NCAA Tournament team? Probably not — although their chances are greatly enhanced by the "quality" November win. But they're almost definitely an NIT team, which would be a big improvement from last season's 10-22 finish. And with most of their key players not seniors, they should be even better next season.

Before I applaud the Wolverines, it should be noted that the Bruins didn't look like a top-5 team — or maybe even a top-10 squad. After making a third consecutive Final Four last April, this team is clearly adjusting to the losses of three key players, and it'll be much better by March.

There was offensive confusion, bad turnovers and plenty of missed free throws to go around. It was far from a typical UCLA performance.

But who cares? A win over a great program is just that — HUGE. And now Michigan gets not one, but two shots at No. 10/No. 5 Duke. The Wolverines will take on the Blue Devils Friday night in the tournament finale, and then Duke will travel to Ann Arbor for the rematch two weeks later on Dec. 6.

While a win against the Devils — who, from watching regularly, I'd say are better than the Bruins — would be an even bigger surprise, just the thought of a non-conference resume with "W's" over two top-10 teams has to be intoxicating to any Michigan hoops fan.

But back to the team. It is clear from watching the Wolverines that Beilein knows what he's doing with his 3-point shooting, 1-3-1 zoning style. Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims are good players who could probably play on most Division I teams. As for the rest of the roster, however, they're "system" players. In other words, you would never see David Merritt running the point for John Calipari in Memphis.

Consider 6-foot-3, 175-pound freshman guard Stu Douglass, who made the biggest shot of the night. With the Bruins leading 48-46 with less than 5 minutes remaining — and seemingly on the verge of breaking away, as many would expect — Douglass unexpectedly launched a long, contested 3-pointer that I can't believe he released. It was the type of shot you groan about, thinking, "Dumb freshman."

But, holy smokes, it caught nothing but net. After they had allowed the Bruins to forge ahead, Douglass' improbable shot restored the Wolverines' confidence, and they didn't trail the rest of the game. It was the kind of shot that could be pointed to in February as momentum-building if Michigan is in the midst of a memorable season. And it was made by a player who wasn't recruited by any top-notch programs and wasn't even rated by

And it wasn't an aberration (Douglass is a designated long-range sharpshooter; that's his role). Michigan's performance in Madison Square Garden was no anomaly, either. In case you missed it, this is what the Wolverines do well and are only getting better at.

1. Defensively, they fluster opponents with their 1-3-1 extended halfcourt trap, which slows down opponents and especially makes life difficult for teams such as the Bruins who don't shoot particularly well from the perimeter. UCLA passed on several open — albeit long — 3-pointers and shot just 5-of-15 from behind the arc. At times, it exploited the defense with deft inside passing, but that takes precise execution. Half of the time, passes just a little off the mark resulted in turnovers.

Michigan forced 17 UCLA miscues. Meanwhile, the younger Wolverines gave the ball away just nine times. That was a huge factor in the victory.

2. The Wolverines still look stagnant at times on offense, and there were a few possessions when everyone was bunched together on the perimeter with the shot clock running down. But Michigan tends to move very well without the ball, creating plays such as the backdoor pass that Sims took from Anthony Wright for a huge dunk that extended Michigan's lead to 53-49 with 34 seconds remaining.

Also, all the Wolverines are quick and can shoot from anywhere on the floor, including 6-10 big man Zack Gibson. This means opponents can't sag back against anyone, which creates plenty of space for Harris to slash to the basket. The biggest thing Harris needs to work on is his passing. He made two awful passes in transition that almost cost Michigan the game. With the attention he's going to receive from opposing defenses, he needs to be able to find the open man.

So even before Thanksgiving, Michigan has an identity (not to mention that program-building win on national television). Don't tell me that there weren't some high-school kids watching ESPN2 who didn't think, "Wow, now there's a team I could see myself playing for." Yes, the win could certainly help recruiting.

But most important, the upset was a confidence-booster for a Michigan team that hasn't won such a big game since taking down No. 1 Duke on Dec. 14, 1997. Michigan fought back from 17 points down in that game and ended up going to the NCAA Tournament, where it bowed out in the second round.

Sitting in Crisler Arena's nosebleeds that Saturday afternoon, I never could have guessed that after the season Michigan would go 10 straight seasons without making it back to the Big Dance or beating a top-five team. The thought would have been met with laughter.

But sadly enough, that's what has transpired during the darkest era of the program's history.

Thursday, Nov. 20, 2008, was only one day, and it contained just a single Michigan victory, but in the months and years to come it could hold a special significance in the minds of the program's faithful followers. It could mark the day of the signature victory that boosted the program onto an infallible road back to respectability.

Regardless of how the win is remembered, this much is for sure: Beilein and staff know what they're doing and are well on their way to molding this team, and the ones to come, into one to be reckoned with throughout the season.

What the Wolverines did against UCLA is learn to win a close, hard-fought game against a more highly regarded opponent. The effects of the victory shouldn't be underestimated.

And you can bet Duke won't be taking the Wolverines lightly in the teams' first meeting or second.


OldEnglish said...

Wow, I needed the primer on UM's basketball team. I saw the backdoor pass by Wright you wrote about--it was nice--it surprised me for the Wolverines. Like you say, they've got a long way to go, but hopefully they can start building.

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