When Michigan entered Little Caesars Arena on Saturday morning, John Beilein wasn’t quite sure what he was going to get out of his team.
“It was an interesting couple of days,” Beilein said. “We didn’t know if (Moritz Wagner) was going to play, unfortunately Charles’ (Matthews) grandmother passed away and we flew him back in from Chicago and he got here about a half hour before the game started and Duncan (Robinson) had laryngitis so he couldn’t talk while he’s trying to call ball screens in practice.”
To anyone who pays attention to U-M basketball, it’s clear those are three key pieces to how the Wolverines operate from game-to-game.
With that in play, Beilein said the other guys were told they were going to play bigger roles in the game against Detroit Mercy.
Did they let the pressure affect them?
The score speaks for itself.
The Wolverines (10-3, 1-1 Big Ten) took the opener of the Hitachi College Basketball Showcase 90-58 over the Titans, controlling the game from start to finish.
“I’m really proud of the way these guys defended today,” Beilein said after the win on Saturday. “All the sudden Moe’s not there, can Duncan talk and is Charles going to be here?
“We’re growing, it’s really good for us.”
Robinson and Matthews both did have a monumental factor on the outcome, combining for 31 points, but they didn’t do it all by themselves.
Jon Teske recorded a double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds in his first start for U-M. Zavier Simpson came off the bench to continue his strong point guard play with 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting while adding seven assists and five boards. Freshman guard Jordan Poole scored 12 points with a couple highlight jams.
Teske said he was ready to go thanks to the preparation the Wolverines put in day-to-day.
“We practice like it’s a game and that really prepared me to be ready,” Teske said. “If we have someone go down, the next guy is ready to go and I think that happened today.”
While Wagner wasn’t on the floor, he was interactive from the bench the entire game, telling both Teske and Austin Davis what he was seeing from them.
“(Wagner) helps me a lot, each and every day,” Teske said. “He’s always talking to me and helping me improve my game, and when he’s on the bench like today he points out things on the court that I might not see and he’s always by my side to help me. It’s great to have a teammate like that.”
In a game without arguably its best player and with the effectiveness of Matthews and Robinson in question, U-M’s younger players rose to the challenge.
Maybe the more important part? It opened the floor for players like Matthews and Robinson to get in a groove.
Mainly for Robinson, who went 3-of-4 from beyond the arc against UD after making just four triples over his last four games.
“Luckily we were able to make some shots and it got us going,” Robinson said. “But really it is our defense, when we get those stops we are able to get out and go. It all starts on that end.”
Beilein said the importance of Robinson’s game is evident as it makes everyone better because “no one can leave him alone” with his past shooting percentage from deep.
“If Duncan is in the corner, someone has to go out to him and that opens up so much space on that side of the floor,” Beilein said. “It allows Charles (Matthews) to drive to the basket and makes the offense work better.”
Beilein believes that getting out into fast-break opportunities is helping the offense work better as well.
“We’re finding open guys, Zavier (Simpson) and Eli (Brooks) are doing a good job of not taking that extra dribble like they were earlier this year,” Beilein said. “Now they are seeing the open man.”
Robinson said the game experience Simpson is gaining is making him a better player every time he goes out on the court.
“He’s grown a lot and is just getting more and more comfortable out there,” Robinson said. “Obviously he brings so much defensively for us, he’s so tough on that end but I think now you are seeing his offensive game grow.”
That play seems to benefiting both of their minutes, as after not playing for the first time all season against Texas, transfer guard Jaaron Simmons didn’t see the floor until the game was out of reach against UD.
Beilein said while the team loves what Simmons has done as a teammate, he needs to show more on the floor to get more involved with the rotation at point guard.
“This isn’t about what you did last year, it’s about what you’re going to do now,” Beilein said. “Yeah he’s a good player, but he has to outplay those other guys and he hasn’t.
“I think he’s better than he’s played right now and I’ve have to get that out of him, that’s my job.”
The large lead the Wolverines built that allowed for more playing time across the board for the U-M bench was questioned after the game if it makes it hard for players to concentrate.
Beilein said his team never expects to be ahead by that much and you can’t really predict it.
“We played really well in the first half and (UD) played very poorly,” Beilein said. “I didn’t expect them to turn the ball over the way they did and you always are waiting for a team to comeback. We just played really well.”
In total, the Wolverines forced 23 total turnovers from the Titans, the most U-M has forced this season.
So with an injury to Wagner, an emotional 24 hours for Matthews and a sickness for Robinson, the Wolverines still found a way to put together one of their best performances on the young campaign.
Beilein spoke highly of the venue itself and said it was an event that could only benefit the teams playing in it.
“I really just focus at what’s on the court, like when we were in the Final Four, I didn’t look up once,” Beilein said. “I did take a tour (of Little Caesars Arena) earlier this year and I’ll probably look again, this is the most fabulous building in the world right now for indoor sports. I’m so proud of it today and I want to be proud of it in the future.”
While there is no guarantee the event will happen next season, there is a possibility an announcement could come soon of it happen again according to a report from The Athletic’s Brendan Quinn. If it does, maybe it will attract another sellout crowd like this one did. A record setting crowd for the new arena.
JUST IN: Today’s attendance for the Hitachi College Basketball Showcase is 20,645 - the largest crowd in the history of Little Caesars Arena! pic.twitter.com/RXbuSg242U— Little Caesars Arena (@LCArena_Detroit) December 16, 2017
For U-M, it is much more than that. What they did in that building on Saturday was learn more about their depth and mental toughness as a team.
Now it’s in the past, but it may be a game to look back on in a few months where players roles began to increase, overall shaping this team in a new way.