ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The young Michigan basketball team has already gotten a taste of the grueling Big Ten basketball season.
During a two-game conference teaser at the beginning of December, Michigan polished off the most impressive eight-game start in the country by crushing Purdue, 76-57.
Three days later, Northwestern came within an inch of knocking the Wolverines from the ranks of the unbeaten. Michigan looked unbeatable for the first month of the season, but that Saturday-Tuesday Big Ten turnaround showed John Beilein’s young team what it faces when January rolls around.
As the Wolverines walked out of Welsh-Ryan Arena, probably more relieved than excited, they faced a four-game stretch of nonconference games that didn’t appear to pose much of a challenge. South Carolina, Western Michigan, Air Force and Binghamton have lost a combined 24 games, while Michigan has yet to lose one.
For many teams in the Big Ten, it could be a letdown to go back to games against weaker opponents after a week of conference play. But it’s a perfect opportunity for Beilein to address perhaps his teams greatest weakness: depth.
Michigan’s thin rotation
Through a third of the season, only seven players have appeared in all 11 games for Michigan. Beilein has essentially used his five starters and two subs, as nobody else averages even six minutes per game.
Michigan is halfway through this last nonconference stretch, and the bench hasn’t really gotten into the games.
South Carolina went into Ann Arbor as a 17-point underdog, but avoided true blowout range the entire game. Michigan’s lead was in single-digits with under four minutes to play, so Beilein never had a chance to dive into his bench.
On Saturday, Michigan was favored by 24 1/2 points against Western Michigan, but never pulled away, leading by two points at halftime and allowing the Broncos to get within five points with under two minutes to play.
Once again, Beilein was forced to stick with his seven-man rotation along with nine minutes from backup center Austin Davis.
The question is: Can this team survive nine straight weeks of Big Ten play with only seven major contributors?
Difficult Big Ten schedule
Playing with a short bench is an especially tall task for the Wolverines during a year in which the Big Ten expanded to 20 conference games. From Jan. 3 to March 9 — a span of 65 days — the Wolverines will play 18 games in 10 cities against the deepest conference in the country.
A whopping 14 of those 18 games will come against teams ranked in the KenPom top 50, which means Michigan will have to be on its game every single time it takes the court.
Depth was certainly an issue during the team’s closest call of the season. The Wolverines were actually on the brink of blowing Northwestern out of its own arena, leading 45-30 with 17:19 remaining.
Then, after a foul forced Jon Teske to the bench with 15:55 remaining and Michigan leading by 13, the tide turned dramatically.
Michigan’s top-five defense came unraveled as Northwestern scored 13 points in 2:21, including three straight layups. Beilein’s team uncharacteristically committed three fouls and two turnovers during the stretch, which saw Northwestern turn that 15-point deficit into a 2-point game.
The Wolverines treaded water for a few minutes, but nobody was moving on offense and they weren’t getting quality shots. A 6-point lead turned into a 3-point deficit after Zavier Simpson missed 3-pointers on back-to-back-to-back possessions.
It took clutch 3-pointers by Ignas Brazdeikis and Eli Brooks to rescue Michigan from that lull and two excellent offensive possessions from Jordan Poole to secure the victory.
That would have been a costly conference loss for Michigan, and Northwestern had a chance because of Michigan’s lack of depth. Beilein only got three total points from his bench in the game.
Davis is more of an emergency option off the bench when Teske gets in foul trouble, so Brooks and Isaiah Livers are the only true threats outside the starting lineup.
What Beilein really needs is contribution from more of his freshman class, as Brazdeikis has been the only newcomer to truly make a difference.
Brandon Johns feels like the freshman closest to playing a significant role, especially if Beilein wants to use more of his small lineup.
Johns was the No. 2 player in the state of Michigan coming out of high school and the No. 70 overall player in the recruiting class. He was the top player in the class behind Brazdeikis.
In limited playing time across seven games, Johns has made two of four field goal attempts, knocking down his only 3-pointer and both of his free-throw attempts. He’s played primarily in blowouts, but needs an opportunity for more playing time if he hopes to be a factor in conference play.
Johns is a 6-foot-8 wing who’s playing backup at the five for Beilein because the team is thinnest at that spot. He’s most comfortable at a wing position, but it would be a nice change of pace if Beilein could turn to Johns when Teske needs a break and make the offense more dangerous from around the arc.
Point guard isn’t quite as big a need, but Beilein is basically filling both the point guard and shooting guard positions with Simpson, Brooks and Poole, while Poole also plays some small forward when all three are on the court.
Simpson rarely leaves the court, but there are times when the Wolverines hit a cold spell on offense and need more shooting threats. Down the stretch against Northwestern, Beilein was forced to stick with Brooks at the point guard spot, even though he’s more effective off the ball.
David DeJulius was the four-star point guard commit in Michigan’s 2018 class and the No. 5 overall player in the state out of East English Village Prep in Detroit. He’s only made one of his eight shot attempts this season, but Beilein needs him to be a viable option to extend the bench.
End of nonconference play
Conference play resumes for good Jan. 3, so Michigan has two more chances to get Johns and DeJulius some playing time.
Air Force will visit the Crisler Center on Saturday as the No. 249 team in KenPom. That’s 44 spots lower than Western Michigan.
The final nonconference game will be Dec. 30 against Binghamton, which ranks No. 332 in KenPom. That will be the worst team Michigan plays all season, so it’s a great opportunity for Beilein to find extended minutes for his bench.
So far, Michigan has survived just fine with seven players, but the grind will get much tougher when the calendar turns to 2019.
Last year’s Final Four team had nine players averaging at least 10 minutes per game, as did the 2014 Elite Eight team. The 2013 Final Four team wasn’t quite as deep, but bench guys such as Jon Horford and Spike Albrecht at least gave Beilein options in a pinch.
Beilein’s teams are known for improving throughout the season. The young players on his bench will need to continue that trend for Michigan to win this year’s Big Ten title.
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