With its victory over the Penn State Nittany Lions on Tuesday night, the Michigan basketball team moved to 4-0 in Big Ten conference play. The Wolverines are now one of two teams undefeated in league action, but we learned much more about them than where they sit in the standings.
After a scare early in the second half, the Maize and Blue easily dispatched of Penn State, 80-67, thanks to another impressive shooting performance.
This young Michigan team is coming together and improving with each game. Ball movement is much more fluid. Fewer passes are flying into the front row. Individuals have figured out their roles. All of those things bode well for the Wolverines as their most difficult stretch of the 2013-14 season is now upon them.
Keeping Michigan's great start to Big Ten play in perspective, though, its four victories have come against teams with a combined 3-13 record in conference games. Not exactly a daunting schedule.
Still, wins are wins, and although the Wolverines may not be as impressive as their league record, they are heating up at the right time.
Here are the three biggest takeaways from Michigan's win against Penn State at the Crisler Center.
Defense is Still a Major Issue
Thankfully for the Wolverines, their offense has been much better than their defense. Even slowing down a normally inefficient Nittany Lions club proved to be a challenge.
Through its first four Big Ten contests, Penn State shot just 37.4 percent from the field, which ranked next-to-last in the conference. Against Michigan, the Nittany Lions knocked down 26 of 53 attempts (49.1 percent) and consistently torched its guards.
Needless to say, it has not been pretty.
For the second straight game, Michigan's guards look entirely helpless when it comes to keeping their man in front of them.— Ace Anbender (@AceAnbender) January 15, 2014
The second game MGoBlog's Ace Anbender referenced was the Wolverines' narrow escape from Nebraska. Michigan allowed the Cornhuskers to convert 53.1 percent of their attempts.
The Wolverines' next three games will be against Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State. Those three teams are Nos. 2-4 in the Big Ten in field-goal percentage. Unless the defense makes some massive steps forward between now and this weekend, Michigan may have to score in the 90s to come away with a victories in any of those matchups.
Derrick Walton Jr. is Coming Along
It may have taken some time, but things are finally slowing down for freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. The former 4-star prospect has been the starter all season long; however, sophomore reserve Spike Albrecht pushed him early on.
With three straight double-digit scoring performances, Walton has Michigan's offense operating on a whole other level. It should not come as a surprise the Wolverines lead the Big Ten in field-goal percentage because league play is about the time Walton started to find his groove.
Tuesday night was his best game yet. He went 6-of-9 from the field for 16 points and dished out three assists. The numbers do not completely do his night justice, though. A few missed shots cost him some additional helpers. The Harper Woods, Mich., product delivered passes without hesitation, was aggressive on fast breaks and drove the lane to create opportunities for others.
When Walton is playing at his current level, the Wolverines can score with just about anyone, mostly because their ball movement is much quicker and more effective.
Michigan will need Walton to continue his development in order to have a legitimate shot at a Big Ten title, but there is no doubt the youngster is starting to shine.
No Mitch McGary, No Problem
Veteran bigs Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford were excellent once again. The Wolverines may not have one power forward with the abilities of preseason All-American Mitch McGary, but the duo of upperclassmen is filling in quite valiantly.
What will Michigan's record be over the next three games?
In the victory over Penn State, Morgan and Horford teamed up to go 7-of-8 from the field, score 19 points and grab nine rebounds.
Both have continued to be effective in the post defensively. However, once Michigan faces some bigs with the ability to play on the perimeter, such as Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky and Michigan State's Adreian Payne, it will be an altogether different challenge for the two.
It appears any thoughts of McGary's absence being too much for this team to overcome were premature and simply out of panic.
As previously mentioned, though, this upcoming trio of games will give everyone a much clearer indication as to where Michigan stacks up in the Big Ten.
Want to talk more Michigan basketball? Follow me on Twitter: @Zach_Dirlam