The Battle 4 Atlantis was a three-games-in-three-days tournament set smack dab in the middle of the Thanksgiving holiday the week before the biggest football game of the season. The odds that I would be able to pen my Five Takeaways column after each of these Battle 4 Atlantis games were set firmly at zero. But, now that the tournament has ended and the weekend has passed, I've had an opportunity to reflect on Michigan's time spent in the Bahamas. My five takeaways:
1. The Texas Win Salvaged the Trip.
Before Friday, it wasn't better in the Bahamas for Michigan. The Wolverines were crushed by Connecticut in the opening round, trailing by as many as 19 points in the second half before losing by 14, and they annihilated Charlotte, 102-47, setting a Battle 4 Atlantis single-game scoring record, in a win that meant little. The 49ers are bad. Really bad. They are 1-5 and lost to Elon by 11 points at home. Yes, that's the same Elon team that Michigan drubbed by 20 points. And Michigan didn't fly down to the Bahamas to compete against the dregs of college basketball. They can do that within the confines of the Crisler Center like they did to start the season and will throughout the month of December. The Battle 4 Atlantis was a crucial chance to earn quality, resume-boosting wins, and a loss to Texas would have sunk Michigan to 0-2 versus top-50 teams in the Bahamas and 0-3 versus top-50 teams this season. This would have been alarming since Michigan has only two decent non-conference games left, and they are both on the road.
I'd never call Game #6 of a 31-game season a must-win, but the Texas tilt was important.
And that's why winning it salvaged the trip. Now, Michigan is 4-2 with a victory over Texas, who's #42 on KenPom, and losses to Xavier (#14), who's much better than anticipated, and UConn (#22). Michigan still has questions and concerns, but beating the Longhorns was satisfying and prevented the Wolverines from shifting into worry mode.
2. Michigan Can't Ask for Much More from Caris LeVert
It's still very early in the season, but Michigan fans may want to start appreciating Caris LeVert in the same vein that they did Trey Burke in 2012-13 and Nik Stauskas in 2013-14 if they're not already. One, LeVert is doing everything for this team. Through six games, LeVert is averaging 18.5 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 4.0 APG, and 1.5 SPG, and he leads the team in all of those categories except for RPG, in which he's second. Two, not only is LeVert stuffing the stat sheet, he has been extremely efficient offensively. His offensive rating is astronomical, sitting at 133.6, despite owning a usage rate of 26.9 percent. For context, that's the eighth-highest offensive rating among players that have a usage rate of at least 24 percent. Not in the Big Ten. In the nation. This is because he's shooting the lights out (63.8 eFG%) due to making 56 percent of this threes. And three, LeVert isn't just padding his stats against inferior opponents. His offensive rating against top-50 teams? 132.1. Want to know what Burke's was in 2012-13 and Stauskas' in 2013-14? 109.6 and 115.9, respectively. Sample size and non-conference caveats apply, but LeVert is just killing it.
What's stood out to me the most is how LeVert has carried this team when it's needed it. That hasn't always translated to wins, but that's hardly his fault, even if he is a ball-stopper at times because his teammates aren't contributing. UConn outscored Michigan by 15 points in the final eight minutes of the first half during which LeVert sat on the bench with two fouls; Michigan lost by 14 points. The game was interesting near the end of the second half only because LeVert put the entire team on his back, scored 18 points on just nine shots after halftime, and essentially cut a 19-point deficit to eight by himself. And, against Texas, LeVert scored 11 points in a seven-minute span to close the first half, during which Michigan extended its lead from three points to 12, and connected on back-to-back buckets late in the second half after the Longhorns sliced Michigan's lead from double digits to one. The man is doing everything he can to propel Michigan to victory.
Right now, LeVert isn't the best player in the Big Ten -- that label belongs to Denzel Valentine (20.3 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 9.2 APG, 134.1 ORtg, 30.2 usg%), who arguably has been the nation's best player thus far -- but he's playing like someone who's trying to follow in the footsteps in Burke and Stauskas. I'm looking forward to seeing if he can keep this up.
3. Moritz Wagner: Potential Redshirt to Rotation Regular
Michigan couldn't afford to redshirt Moritz Wagner. That's clear now. Not only have the other centers looked out of sync, Wagner had a breakout performance against Charlotte. He was unstoppable in the first half, scoring 15 points while making all six of his shots, one of which was a three from the wing. He finished with 19 points on 8-of-9 shooting, and his only miss was a dunk that he couldn't quite stuff home. That point total exceeds the career highs set by Ricky Doyle (16) and Mark Donnal (13), and he did it in the first collegiate game in which he played more than 10 minutes. Wagner then followed that up with seven points on 3-of-3 shooting against Texas, which included an and-one bucket. So, in his last two games, he has averaged 13 PPG and posted a 95.8 eFG%. Impressive.
Wagner isn't ready to be the starter yet, though. He's still thin, which has given him problems down low whether it's going for rebounds or bodying up opponents in the post. Adding 20 to 25 pounds will do wonders for Wagner, but that will need to wait until next summer, which is why the 250-pound Doyle still should be the starter for the moment.
Nonetheless, Wagner deserves to be the first big man off the bench, and John Beilein agrees. Wagner's offensive skillset not only includes the ability to knock down outside jumpers but also the awareness to use the rim to prevent defenders from blocking his shot on his nifty reverse layups. He'll have his ups and downs this year as any true freshman would, particularly an overseas import, but he should provide a needed spark.
4. Surviving Shootouts: Michigan's Future?
Michigan salvaged the trip to the Bahamas with its win over Texas, but what was needed for the Wolverines to win that game is concerning. Michigan scored 78 points in 62 possessions for a 1.26 PPP, drilled 14-of-25 threes (56.0 pct.), including 11 in the first half (!!), and registered a 72.0 eFG%. Yet Michigan beat Texas by only six points, and it would have been closer or a loss if the Longhorns shot better than 8-of-19 from the charity stripe (42.1 pct.). Michigan survived the shootout, but how often will they be able to do that this season? The Wolverines are 119th in adjusted defensive efficiency and have allowed the three top-50 teams they've faced to average 1.25, 1.14, and 1.16 PPP. That's not going to get it done this season if Michigan wants to win consistently. It's just not. Yes, Michigan is eighth in adjusted offensive efficiency, but that's mostly due to shooting 44.9 percent from beyond the arc. That's not sustainable because Derrick Walton (63.6 3P%), Duncan Robinson (57.7 3P%), and Caris LeVert (56.0 3P%) won't continue to be so lethal from downtown. At least not on an every-game basis because three-point shooting has much more variance than interior shooting. So Michigan must improve its defense soon.
5. It's Just Better, Better in the Bahamas
I heard it during every commercial break for three days, so it must be true.
[starts humming the tune]
Oh, no. HELP.