Nearly three decades after beginning his NBA career in the nation’s capital, Juwan Howard returned to Washington, D.C. as the Michigan men’s basketball coach for the first time this weekend.
On Saturday night, the Wolverines beat HBCU Prairie View A&M, 77-49, as part of the inaugural Coaches vs. Racism event. While it’s difficult to glean major takeaways from a neutral court non-conference blowout of a mid-major, these three observations stood out during Michigan’s second win of the young season:
Get used to seeing more offensive balance
During Howard’s first three years in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines have established themselves as one of the nation’s most balanced offenses. His first two teams were characterized by strong ball-screen play from point guards Zavier Simpson and Mike Smith, which allowed them to set up teammates for open looks. At the same time, it created a high floor for the team’s offense.
Through one exhibition and two regular season games, it appears that hasn’t changed.
The Wolverines’ offense is predicated on Hunter Dickinson, whose back-to-the-basket post game is one of the country’s best. Dickinson has also shown an ability to score off pick-and-roll actions with Coastal Carolina graduate transfer DeVante’ Jones, and he also knocked down his first career 3-pointer off a pick-and-pop set on Saturday night.
Beyond Dickinson, Michigan’s starting lineup features more capable scorers in Jones, a three-level threat, and sharpshooters Caleb Houstan and Eli Brooks. Meanwhile, forward Brandon Johns Jr. has shown an ability to finish in traffic around the rim and knock down open 3-pointers.
Off the bench, there’s a lot to like about freshmen Moussa Diabate and Kobe Bufkin. The former is brimming with potential and athleticism, while the latter has the length and quick twitch to become a premier scoring guard sooner rather than later. Senior wing Adrien Nunez, too, has shown promise as a 3-point shooter in the past.
Like Howard’s first two years, this Michigan team is well-balanced. Offense can come from any source on any given night, and that’s one of the makings of success in college basketball. Hero ball looks flashy at times, but it doesn’t always pan out (see Marcus Carr at Minnesota and Ayo Dosunmu at Illinois, among other recent Big Ten examples). The teams that last the longest in March are the ones with multiple offensive contributors capable of exploiting the most favorable matchups on any given night.
So far this year, the Wolverines appear to fit that bill.
Free throw woes stand out again
Though two games is a small sample size, Michigan is shooting a dismal 56.5% clip at the free throw line so far this season. They’ve struggled at the charity stripe, which may come as a surprise given the Wolverines’ success in that area last season. TMBR’s Adam Schnepp tackled this issue in his takeaways piece, but it’s worth harping on given the way free throws can swing the pendulum in college basketball games.
For now, the bad news for Michigan is the fact that its two highest-volume free throw shooters — Jones and Dickinson — are two of the team’s worst so far. Neither Jones (6-for-12) nor Dickinson (5-for-11) are shooting above 50% from the stripe, which comes as a major surprise. Dickinson shot 74% from the line last year, while Jones hit 86% of his attempts. Those season-long numbers suggest their early woes are merely a blip on the radar so far in 2021.
The Wolverines are likely to see their team free-throw percentage rise dramatically in recent weeks. Howard identified the issue as “correctable” and knows it can be fixed in practice, but in the meantime, it could prove to be an early-season Achilles heel if the Wolverines find themselves in a close game down the stretch soon.
Rebounding is improving
After surrendering 17 offensive rebounds in the exhibition win over Wayne State, Michigan allowed 12 offensive rebounds to Buffalo and Prairie View A&M. While that number is still higher than the Wolverines would like, it’s no longer the red flag it was following the exhibition.
In the first half on Saturday night, Dickinson and Diabate patrolled the boards well. They both nearly reached a double-double by the break and ultimately combined to pull down 18 rebounds.
Jones, meanwhile, added eight of his own. He never averaged below five rebounds per game during his time at Coastal Carolina, and his presence on the glass could make a big difference for a Michigan team looking to run in transition as much as possible this year. When Jones grabs boards, especially long rebounds, he’s able to push the ball up the court quickly and lead the offense to easy dunks, layups or uncontested jumpers before opponents have a chance to settle into their halfcourt defense.
In total, the Wolverines out-rebounded Prairie View A&M, 52-32. They’ve won the battle on the boards in each of their first two contests — a sign that hustle and effort won’t be an issue on the glass throughout the season.
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