Coach John Beilein, in only his second season at the University of Michigan, has revived their historic basketball program. The Wolverines are 6-2 and boast two wins against the top five. The first win was against No. 9 UCLA (4-2) who was ranked No. 4 when Michigan played them at Madison Square Garden. The other upset victim was No. 4 Duke (8-1) at Crisler Arena on Saturday.
Saturday's 81-73 victory over the Blue Devils validated their victory over UCLA just two weeks earlier. Many people began to get the idea it was merely a fluke after the Wolverines needed a 20-point comeback and a buzzer beater in overtime to beat lowly Savannah State.
However, in the Savannah State game, Michigan shot just 40 percent from the floor and had 19 turnovers. Meanwhile, Savanna State shot 7-9 from three-point range and shot an overall percentage of 56 percent (71 percent in the first half). It was just a day where nothing could go right for Michigan, but junior forward DeShawn Sims hit the game-winning jumper as time expired.
It seems as if that comeback gave the Wolverines a spark. Michigan played with an energy that Duke could not match. They were scrapping and fighting for every rebound and loose ball. They also held the Blue Devils to 7-33 from three-point range.
In their first meeting this season at Madison Square Garden, Duke never allowed Michigan to lead and won the game 71-56. They were able to knife through Michigan's defense and get easy layups.
This time Michigan controlled the tempo from start to finish. The defense forced Duke to settle for jump shots and sophomore guard Kelvin Grady continued to push the tempo for the Wolverines. Grady's two biggest plays were passes to freshman Zack Novak.
Michigan trailed 53-50 with just over eight minutes left. Grady pushed the ball up the floor, drove, and kicked it out to Novak on the wing. He would knock down the three-pointer to get the sold out crowd of nearly 14,000 back on their feet. On the very next possession, Grady again ran the fast break and dished it to Novak in the corner. The shot hit nothing but net, and Michigan took a 56-53 lead and never looked back.
Michigan led by five with just under two minutes to go. This was until sophomore guard Manny Harris drove by Jon Scheyer and threw down a monster two handed dunk. The Wolverines would go on to make 8-9 free throws to seal the victory.
Much of Michigan's success has been because of Sims and Harris. Sims had a career high 28 points and 12 rebounds in the Duke game and led all scorers in their 55-52 victory over UCLA with 18. Sims has averaged 16.4 points per game on the season, but has averaged 21 points in his last three games and is shooting 63 percent from the floor.
Harris has been hot all season long. He returned this season as the leading scorer in the Big Ten. He has averaged 20.8 points per game along with 7.4 rebounds. Harris set the 2K Sports Classic record earlier this season with 96 points. He has at least 15 points in every game and has scored 22 or more in four of their eight games.
It's also hard to miss two of Michigan's great young shooters. True freshmen Zack Novak and Stu Douglass have shown a lot of promise in their first eight games. Douglass proved himself with ten points and two huge three-pointers in the win over UCLA, but he only has five points in his last three games.
However, Novak has picked up the slack in a big way. He had 14 points in the win over Duke and has averaged 11.25 points per game in his last four games. This came after only scoring eight points in his first four.
The victory over Duke was the first for Michigan in its last seven tries. It was also only Duke's third loss in December since the '99-'00 season.
Also, the Blue Devils for the first time in 31 games lost to an unranked non-conference opponent. It also gave Michigan its second victory over a top five opponent this season, which is something it hasn't done in the regular season in 22 years.
So why has there been so much improvement? The answer is very simple, coaching. John Beilein is one of the greatest coaches in the country and he is proving it. Last season, his first at Michigan, they struggled and lost a school record 22 games. It should be noted that last year’s schedule was the sixth toughest in the nation.
The players believe in their coach as well. “Coach is so confident,” said Zack Novak.
DeShawn Sims also spoke about Coach Beilein after the Duke game, “He defines the ‘C’ and the ‘O’ and the ‘A’ and the ‘C’ and the ‘H’ in ‘coach’. He coaches you on an interpersonal level that’s just amazing.”
The biggest improvement is on the defensive end. Beilein brought his 1-3-1 zone defense with him from West Virginia. Now that the players are executing it the way it was intended to, they have given their opponents fits. The Wolverines force an average of 14.25 turnovers per game and are 16th in the nation in three-point field goal defense.
But wait, Wolverine fans there is more good news. Coach Beilein feels that Arizona transfer Laval Lucas-Perry will add a significant three-point threat to the Michigan lineup. Even Dick Vitale talked about Lucas-Perry in their win over UCLA.
Sources close to the Michigan program say Beilein has said Lucas-Perry could quite possibly be the best player he has ever coached. Lucas-Perry will make his debut on Dec. 20th against Oakland.
Michigan closes out its non-conference schedule with home games against Eastern Michigan, Florida Gulf Coast, and North Carolina Central. They play Oakland University at the Palace of Auburn Hills. The Wolverines will open up conference play at home against No. 22 Wisconsin. They also play No. 2 Connecticut in February.
The win over Duke was yet another warning shot to every team in college basketball, especially to that team over in East Lansing.
Watch out Spartans, because Michigan is back.
*Quotes courtesy of the Jackson Citizen Patriot