There were no surprises, and Michigan did what it was supposed to do in its 2015-16 opener against Northern Michigan, whooping the Wildcats, 70-44. Northern Michigan is a D-II program -- worse than Le Moyne -- so takeaways from this win shouldn't be concrete. But there were some positives as well as concerns.
1. Aubrey Dawkins "Bounced" Back
In the offseason, Aubrey Dawkins was branded by many as John Beilein's next gem or breakout star. I may or may not have thrown my hat into that ring as well. Not that one poor game is a giant red flag, but Dawkins was a non-factor in the exhibition against Le Moyne, scoring two points on 1-of-7 shooting and tweaking his ankle in the first half.
However, when it counted on Friday, Dawkins demonstrated that he can be the guy that many expect him to be this season. He was extremely efficient, tallying 15 points on 6-of-7 (2-of-3 3FG) shooting with a 100.0 eFG%. Is that good? I think that's pretty good. How he did it was similar to what we saw from him at the end of last season. Dawkins drained two catch-and-shoot three-pointers and threw down three thunderous slam dunks:
HIGHLIGHT: Aubrey Dawkins with the monster put back slam! https://t.co/G9dDAMMsws— Michigan Basketball (@umichbball) November 14, 2015
HIGHLIGHT: Dawkins cuts down the lane for a wide open slam. https://t.co/q1z7uQbvbM— Michigan Basketball (@umichbball) November 14, 2015
Like I said, he bounced back in this game.
Dawkins also added a new trick to his arsenal of offensive moves when he dribbled to his right to the right elbow, switched the ball to his left hand, jumped in the air, and dropped in an odd-looking floater. Dawkins always was more of a three and D -- as in dunk, not defense -- kind of weapon as a frosh, so maybe he's added a new element to his game.
In other areas, Dawkins' rebounding was great as he hauled in six boards, five of which were on the defensive glass. This is promising because he didn't rebound much last year (4.1 OR%, 8.5 DR%) and has the length and vertical leap to be better there. Defensively, his awareness must improve because he's gotten stuck on screens two games in a row.
But, all in all, it was an excellent showing by Dawkins.
2. Caris LeVert Continued to Look All-Big Ten Smooth
I don't think we need to fret about Caris LeVert's foot anymore. In the exhibition against Le Moyne, LeVert tallied a game-high 22 points on 17 shots (64.7 eFG%), four rebounds, three assists, and two steals. Last night against Northern Michigan, he posted a game-high 18 points on 12 shots (66.7 eFG%), five assists, four rebounds, and two steals. Yes, D-II opposition caveats apply, but he looks like he's primed for another All-Big Ten season.
Not only has he been efficient with his outside shooting, he's been aggressive in driving into the lane for layups. He's made an assertive effort to do this, and, against undersized opponents like Le Moyne and Northern Michigan, it has paid off nicely. It also has helped his play-making ability. For reasons I'll explain more in the next section, Michigan's offense has endured some sloppy stretches when plays have broken down. However, LeVert has taken it upon himself to create offense in those situations. You saw that tonight when he had a stretch of four consecutive assists early in the second half:
On Michigan's second possession of the half, LeVert saw Dawkins flash open in the left corner and threw him an overhead skip pass. Dawkins caught the pass and fired a three without any hesitation. Bang. Next possession, LeVert ran a pick and roll with Donnal on the right wing. As he dribbled towards the baseline, LeVert drew a second defender and dropped back a pass to Donnal, who popped to the wing and knocked down an 18-foot mid-range jumper. Two trips later, LeVert attracted another double team on the baseline and found a wide-open Dawkins cutting through the lane. LeVert hit him with a sharp pass, and Dawkins threw down his second dunk of the contest. Then LeVert capped off his assist spree by penetrating into the paint and kicking the ball out to an open Wilson in the right corner. Bang. Just like that, LeVert had assisted Michigan's first four makes to start a 10-0 run that'd turn into a 27-8 run after LeVert hit two threes and Dawkins finished an alley-oop.
There's no question that LeVert is the straw that stirs the drink that's Michigan's offense.
3. Rocky Rotations Messed with Michigan's Offensive Flow
For the second straight game, Michigan's offense stumbled out of the gates. Against Le Moyne, the Wolverines scored only six points in their first 11 possessions (0.55 PPP). Against Northern Michigan, they scored only 15 points in their first 21 possessions (0.71 PPP). Last night, it was a combination of two things: missed open threes and turnovers. There's not much to say about the missed open threes other than "make more of them," and, after Michigan knocked down only one of its first seven shots behind the line, it drilled five of its next nine. However, there's something to be said about the turnovers. Michigan coughed it up six times in the first 12 minutes, during which the Wolverines outscored NMU by four points, and just twice in the ensuing 20 minutes, during which they outscored NMU by a whopping 23 points. When Michigan was able to settle down and attempt open shots, that's when the offense fell into a rhythm and really took off.
Should Michigan fans be concerned about these slow, sloppy starts? No, not really. You can start with the fact that Michigan's starting lineup right now -- Derrick Walton, Caris LeVert, Aubrey Dawkins, Kameron Chatman, and Mark Donnal -- won't be the same once Zak Irvin returns to action. But, more notably, John Beilein is messing around with his rotations right now and trying new things. In those first 12 minutes or so, it felt like Beilein was subbing players in and out on a whim, and, for a brief stretch, he had five reserves all on the floor at once. To be clear, I don't mean for that to sound negative because I understand what Beilein is doing. He won't be able to experiment with various lineups like this once Michigan goes toe to toe with its peers. However, when he makes quick changes like this, it's difficult for the offense to find that rhythm -- hence, the turnovers. And, when Beilein stuck with a lineup of Walton/Spike Albrecht, LeVert, Dawkins, Chatman, and D.J. Wilson for the final eight minutes of the first half, that's when the offense found its comfort zone and began to put points on the board in a hurry.
So, once Beilein settles on his rotations, I think Michigan's offense will look crisper.
4. The Big Bodies Must Be Better
Mark Donnal and Ricky Doyle didn't stand out on Friday night, and that's a concern given that Northern Michigan started four guards that aren't taller than 6-foot-3 and a 6-foot-7 center. It's not that they weren't scoring threats because they're not expected to be. Donnal went 2-for-2 with a game-opening layup and an 18-foot jumper off a pick and pop, while Doyle added two points. That's fine. The problem is twofold. First, the undersized Wildcats out-rebounded the Wolverines (30.6 OR% to 25.0 OR%), and Donnal and Doyle combined for just three rebounds. I know Michigan likes to have its guards and wings corral the opponent's misses, but Donnal and Doyle must be better because it won't be easier once Michigan faces centers their size. And, second, they struggled to defend well without fouling. Last season, Donnal often resorted to hacking because he wasn't strong enough to defend in the post. Tonight, he picked up three fouls in 10 minutes. Doyle wasn't much better either. He was whistled four times in just 15 minutes.
I thought D.J. Wilson's performance was more inspiring. He didn't help as much as needs to on the glass as well -- one rebound in 23 minutes -- but he's more athletic and more skilled than Donnal and Doyle. Wilson flashed a turnaround jumper and connected on a corner three for five points, while tossing in three assists. The offense seemed to flow better when he was in there, and I don't think it was a coincidence that Michigan started to score more frequently once John Beilein stuck him at the 5 late in the first half. Plus, his mobility is an asset at center when he'll need to hedge on screens and recover on the perimeter. I'm not saying that Wilson should start, but I think he'll be the backup soon.
5. Kein Rotes Hemd
What does that mean? In German, it means "No Red Shirt."
With 5:41 left and Michigan ahead of Northern Michigan, 65-41, John Beilein sent in true freshman Moritz Wagner, burning his redshirt unless Wagner suffers an injury in the early weeks of the season. I was a bit surprised by this action because I thought that Beilein would want him to develop in the weight room and the gym for a season before tossing him to the wolves. However, I'm also not that surprised given that Michigan's centers haven't shined. There may be times this season when Michigan needs a few quality minutes from Wagner, and I think that's why Beilein wanted to give him some run last night. Wagner looks a bit lost out there and definitely needs to be more physical and better positioned when he defends the post, but you also could see his potential. He showed off his length with a nice tip-in over an NMU defender and two rebounds.