A pair of non-conference tune-ups were exactly what a reloading Michigan basketball team needed to start the 2013-14 season. The Wolverines have been far from consistent but look to be in excellent shape for a team that lost a Wooden Award-winning point guard and first team All-Big Ten shooting guard.
Fans were undoubtedly a bit uneasy after Division I newcomer UMass-Lowell managed to battle to a 23-23 tie at halftime of the season-opener. Any precariousness was put to rest in the second stanza, though, when Michigan outscored the River Hawks, 46-19.
The script was flipped for game No. 2. The Wolverines dominated an overmatched South Carolina State squad in the opening frame, 59-23. Although the end result was never in doubt, there is no reason for the No. 7 ranked team in the nation to be outscored 36-34 in the second half by an inferior opponent. None.
Despite the struggles, the Maize and Blue have shown what they are capable of in two halves this season. In short, Michigan can score in bunches, defend much better than the 2012-13 group and has plenty of depth.
All of this has been without Mitch McGary as well. The preseason All-American should be back just in time for the Puerto Rico Tip-Off on Nov. 21, according to TheWolverine. His return would be a huge boost.
Some of the most pressing questions entering the campaign have already been answered. Derrick Walton Jr. has started both games and has impressed with 9.0 points per game and just four turnovers. The true freshman has a ways to go, but his defense will make up for the growing pains he will endure at the offensive end.
Four other things have become increasingly clear.
Glenn Robinson III Still Needs Time to Adjust
The transition from the 4 to the 3 has been relatively smooth for Glenn Robinson III. However, it is apparent he still needs some time to adjust to being Michigan's go-to scorer.
Robinson has made several improvements. He handles the ball much better, creates more scoring chances individually and attacks the basket. Finishing more of those opportunities is all the 6'6", 220 pounder needs to do now.
Going 4-of-12 from the field, as he did against South Carolina State, is simply not good enough.
Three-point shooting is a work in progress for Robinson as well. He is just 1-of-7 from beyond the arc thus far. This is not a big issue for the Wolverines since they have so many shooters, but those attempts need to start falling for him to reach his full potential.
Caris LeVert's Confidence Is Through the Roof
By far, the biggest story of the opening two contests has been Caris LeVert. The lanky sophomore has averaged 20.5 points, 2.5 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game.
The days of LeVert being a defensive specialist are over. Sure, it is highly unlikely he continues to score at this rate. The numbers will eventually come down, but it is clear the Ohioan is primed for a breakout season. Confidence has led to all of this.
Mechanically, his jumper is better than ever. LeVert drained 6-of-7 three-pointers on Tuesday and went 6-of-11 from the field in the season opener. When he is draining perimeter shots, it is going to be extremely difficult to slow him down.
Looking ahead, LeVert is going to be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenders.
Playing Zone Defense Is Not Advised
Any coaches reviewing the Wolverines' game tape of the South Carolina State contest should have taken one key note: Do not play zone defense.
Michigan is too deadly of a team, especially out on the perimeter, to contain with a zone. The Bulldogs' defensive strategy backfired in a major way. The Wolverines made 15 treys, the second most in school history and shot 53.5 percent from distance.
Nik Stauskas and LeVert alone knocked down 11-of-13 three-pointers.
Conversely, UMass-Lowell provided future opponents with a blueprint for how to slow down Michigan's offense. Take away transition opportunities, shorten the game by going deep into the shot clock and force the Wolverines to operate strictly out of the half court.
For 20 minutes, this limited the Maize and Blue to a mere 23 points.
As long as Michigan is able to get out and run, though, opponents will constantly find themselves in shootouts.
The Next Two Weeks Will Reveal Much More Than the First Two Games
Sunday's clash at Iowa State will give everyone a much better indication as to just how good the Wolverines will be this season. A three-game stint at San Juan from Nov. 21-24 will be even more revealing.
The Cyclones will test Michigan's perimeter defense and ability to handle a hostile environment. For a team featuring just two upperclassmen, traveling is always a concern. A 5-5 record on the road a season ago left something to be desired as well.
Even though Iowa State may be a bit undermanned compared to last year, it has guards talented enough to push the Wolverines.
Long Beach State will not present much of a challenge in the opening round of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. However, a potential semifinal tilt with Virginia Commonwealth will.
Beating a pair of clearly overmatched teams is a great way to gain positive momentum early in the season. Taking down quality opponents away from the Crisler Center is what could wind up determining whether Michigan is a pretender or a contender this year.
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