Despite losing in the first game of the Maui Invitational to LSU last Monday, Michigan basketball head coach John Beilein saw the loss as a blessing in disguise — to make it back to campus early and prepare for a stretch of five games Beilein has never seen during his tenure at Michigan.
“The good news in not winning the championship in Maui was we were able to get back a little earlier and get this (UC Riverside) game in,” Beilein said after the 87-42 victory against UC Riverside this past Sunday. “Now we go into an incredible stretch that I’ve never seen before, Michigan may have never seen before, especially in December. So we’ll go in and do the best we can.”
Those next five games include tonight’s Big Ten-ACC Challenge game at North Carolina, home against Indiana, at Ohio State, home against UCLA and at Texas.
The LSU game may be Michigan’s lone blemish on the early year, but the squad still has a lot to work on and prove. All of that begins tonight when it goes on the road to take on the first of that five game stretch Beilein mentioned — the North Carolina Tar Heels.
Michigan is led by returning star Mortiz Wagner and Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews. Both are in the top 10 in the conference in scoring and led the team in field goal percentage.
The duo had a combined 38 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists 2 steals and just 2 turnovers in the UC Riverside game. They have been putting up really good numbers in the last few games.
Despite UNC playing poorly this past Sunday against Michigan State, Wagner knows the Tar Heels are a good rebounding team and it is “definitely something we have to build on.”
Matthews, meanwhile, seems more than ready for the opportunity to take on the Tar Heels.
“I’m happy for every opportunity to get out here and play basketball,” he said. “It’s a game I don’t take for granted and a game that my teammates and I put so much effort into.”
Even with Matthews and Wagner doing the heavy lifting, the big question mark so far has been at the point guard position. Eli Brooks, Zavier Simpson, Jaaron Simpson and Jordan Poole have all received playing time at the position. Brooks will start his fourth straight game at point guard, but nothing is guaranteed long-term for the freshman. The play from the point guard position will be pivotal moving forward through this five game stretch and heading into Big Ten play.
The Tar Heels, meanwhile, also have just one loss to their name, but that one loss is to a top five Michigan State team that is looking like a championship team already. But not only did they lose, they lost badly. In fact, it was so bad that North Carolina head coach Roy Williams deemed it “as bad an exhibition I’ve ever seen.”
That may not be hyperbole, either. The Tar Heels made just one three-point shot out of 18 attempts and shot just 24.6 percent from the field. They also scored just 45 points, which is the second-lowest scoring output out of a Roy Williams-led team at UNC.
It was a bad performance, but not one that necessarily will haunt the Tar Heels. This is an upperclassmen-led team, with the likes of Joel Berry II, Theo Pinson and Luke Maye. These are the same guys that won the National Championship last year, and they can easily put the MSU game behind them. With a veteran coach like Williams, it’s almost a guarantee that will happen.
Michigan State found great success against the Tar Heels due to locking down defensively. The Wolverines are currently second in the Big Ten in scoring defense (60.1 PPG) and third in rebounding defense (31.4 per game).
If the Wolverines can cause havoc and force bad passes/turnovers for UNC on offense, while also being consistent rebounding the ball, Michigan has a chance to get the upset on the road and have a really nice win on its resume once March rolls around.
The game is set for 7:30 p.m. and is aired on ESPN.