The nonconference portion of the Michigan men’s basketball team’s schedule has gone and passed. The result was fair to the Wolverines, as they sit at 10-3 on the season. Those three trip-ups came by the hands of some very talented teams.
The maize and blue suffered its’ first lost to No. 22 South Carolina Gamecocks, 61-46, back on Nov. 23. Then a week later, the Wolverines lost to a Virginia Tech team that has been receiving votes this year to be in the top-25, 73-70. Michigan’s third loss then came on a road trip out West against No. 2 UCLA, 102-84. While the loss to the Bruins seems like it was a blowout, the Wolverines were competitive as they were tied 50-50 at halftime.
Although, Michigan has suffered three defeats to quality opponents, it has claimed wins that will look good come March. Head coach John Beilein’s team defeated SMU and Marquette during nonconference play.
After the nonconference schedule, there has been more than a handful of takeaways. From senior guards and co-captains Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. have been exceptional and should help Michigan make the NCAA tournament to that the Wolverines shoot effectively—they are shooting a collective 47 percent from the field as team this season which is No. 75 out of 347 teams in the nation—just to name a few.
“I’ve seen improvement in our team,” Walton said to MGOBlue.com’s Steve Kornacki. “We’ve made great strides in defense and rebounding, and that can be all the difference for us. We know we can score points, but stopping other teams and getting out and getting easy baskets will make us a much more dangerous team.”
Despite the massive amounts of takeaways that have been produced during the nonconference slate, there is one that reigns above them all.
Michigan has the makings to compete for a Big Ten title this season.
In year’s past, the Wolverines have relied on their guards to do the bulk of the scoring. Irvin led Michigan in scoring at 11.8 points per game during the 2015-16 season. Then in 2014-15, former Wolverine Chris LeVert led the maize and blue with 14.9 points per contest. Then three seasons ago, Nik Stauskas led the Wolverines with 17.5 points per outing.
While Michigan is still relying on its’ guards to do the majority of the scoring—Irvin and Walton are currently the maize and blue’s top-2 leading scorers at 14.1 and 12.4 points per game respectively—it is finally gaining solid production on both ends of floor from its’ blossoming frontcourt, Moritz Wagner and D.J. Wilson.
Throughtout their careers, Wagner has always been great offensively while Wilson has always been great defensively. But this season, Wagner is stepping up his defensive game while Wilson is doing so offensively.
Wagner ranks in the top-6 of the Big Ten in both field goal percentage (.640) and 3-point field goal percentage (15-for-30, .500). While shooting phenomenally, Wagner is finally using his wide wing span to alter shots on defense, example: his block shot to seal the win over Texas for Michigan on Dec. 6. For Wilson, he ranks in the top-10 in the conference with 6.6 rebounds per game and 18 blocks on the season while scoring 8.5 points per contest with a 53.8 shooting percentage.
Not only is the Wolverines gaining big contributions from several key players, but they have been exceptional all around as a team so far this season.
The Big Ten basketball is known for its’ low-scoring offense and strong defensive play. So far during the 2016-17 year, Michigan’s defense has been outstanding. Its’ scoring defense ranks No. 2 in the conference at 60.8 points per game. Not only has the Wolverines defense been great through 13 games this season, but they are limiting the number of possessions their opponents have had against them as well.
Michigan possesses the second lowest average of defensive rebounds allowed per game among Big Ten teams at 39.5. It also has the best turnover margin in the league at +3.3. That is one full turnover better then the next team in the conference, as Penn State sits at +2.3.
Although Michigan has the makings of a conference contenders, they have one weakness that may doom its’ chances: consistency.
“We have a mindset that, (if) things aren’t going well, that we still have to be confident—we have to play with faith in our ability and not fear,” Beilein told MLive’s Brandon Quinn. “I’ve seen that a couple times...There are sometimes I have to put my arm around people and tell them how good they are. That’s something that we’ve really got to grow in.”
Sometimes, Michigan plays with tremendous grit. Just take a look at the first-half it played against UCLA and the win over Texas. However, too often, the Wolverines doesn’t play mean—example: the Furman game. They often just play. A lack of grit and nice ball won’t lead a team to a Big Ten championship.
Playing with a consistent grit should be the goal for this Michigan team during conference play. If it meets that benchmark, the Wolverines may end up contending for a league title come toward the end of the season.
While consistency is the primary concern that may wind up hurting the maize and blue, it certainly benefits from the Big Ten being down this year.
Teams like Michigan State, Ohio State and Maryland—all who have been in the upper half of the league over the past few seasons—have had troubles against lowered level opponents this season. The Spartans lost to Northeastern, 81-73, and the Buckeyes lost to Florida Atlantic, 79-77 in overtime, this year. With these teams plus many more being down, benefits the maize and blue.
The leadership and experience of Irvin and Walton along with the emergence of Wagner and Wilson down low should put the rest of the conference on alert. However, if the Wolverines don’t figure out their consistency issue, they won’t be a legit adversary. But after the 13 nonconference games, Michigan certainly has the makings to be a contender in the Big Ten during the 2016-17 season.