The Michigan Wolverines extended their season-opening winning streak to seven games with an 84-67 statement victory over the No. 11 North Carolina Tar Heels in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge on Wednesday.
Michigan didn't offer much hospitality in North Carolina's first-ever trip to the Crisler Center. Head coach John Beilein has his team off to its best start (7-0) since 2012-13 when they advanced to the national title game.
Wolverines freshman Ignas Brazdeikis continues to establish himself as a star after finishing with a game-high 24 points on 9-of-13 shooting and grabbing five rebounds.
North Carolina had four players reach double figures in scoring, but Coby White led the way with 12 points. The Tar Heels' 67 points were their fewest in a game this season.
Ignas Brazdeikis Making Strong Case for National Player of the Year
North Carolina was the first true test for Michigan this season, but it turned out to be one the defending Big Ten tournament champions passed with flying colors.
In addition to the Wolverines' usual stout defense, Brazdeikis is quietly putting together a terrific resume that will warrant inclusion in National Player of the Year discussions. In fact, Ken Pomeroy's rankings as of Nov. 14 had the Michigan freshman at No. 10 in the early Player of the Year list:
Brazdeikis entered Wednesday leading Michigan in scoring (15.7 points per game) and has now dropped at least 20 in three straight games. The Canadian sensation has essentially taken over the role that had been occupied by Moe Wagner.
Per Sports Illustrated's Jeremy Woo, Brazdeikis' success has allowed Beilein to essentially play however he wants:
"At 6'8", 200 pounds, Brazdeikis has begun to improve his physique and can slide down to play as a nominal four-man or spend time at the three. That versatility, enabled by his shooting ability and size, allows Michigan to play big or small and have success. ... Crucially, Brazdeikis is a player who can be successful without needing touches designed for him—he's been good in the open floor, shooting with his feet set, and attacking the glass."
Michigan isn't a team that typically plays offense at an uptempo pace. The Wolverines entered this game ranked 267th in scoring with 70.8 points per game and 332nd in the nation with 67.7 possessions per game.
Because Michigan doesn't like to get into shootouts with opposing teams, Brazdeikis' ability as a shooter only adds to his immense value for the team.
This is a difficult year to really stand out as a freshman, with stars like Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, Nassir Little, Bol Bol and White generating plenty of headlines. Brazdeikis belongs in that same category based on his performance so far this season for one of the nation's best teams.
Perimeter Defense Holding UNC Back
It's officially time to start worrying about North Carolina's ability to defend the perimeter. One week after Texas upset the Tar Heels by going 11-of-24 from behind the arc, Michigan caught them completely off guard by making 11 of its 22 attempts.
Woo noted how poor North Carolina looked in its 92-89 loss against Texas, though he also gave credit to Texas' Kerwin Roach:
The overall numbers for North Carolina's defense haven't been bad to this point. Per KenPom.com, the team ranked 20th overall in defensive efficiency with 93.2 points allowed per 100 possessions.
This isn't a new trend for Roy Williams' team. Adrian Atkinson of 247Sports noted in January after back-to-back losses against Virginia Tech and North Carolina State they were unable to defend the pick-and-roll:
"Likewise, nine of Virginia Tech's 12 made threes were created from pick-and-roll action (5), in transition (2), or on BLOBs (2). Containing dribble penetration has been cited as the chief concern for Carolina's perimeter defense. While the Heels haven't been great at keeping the ball in front of them, by far the biggest issue lately has been with ball screens."
Per 247Sports' Greg Barnes, Michigan averaged 1.27 points per possession against North Carolina's defense. This isn't a Wolverines team that typically shoots the lights out. Their only game with more made three-pointers than the 11 they drained on Wednesday was on Nov. 17 against George Washington (15).
For all of the offensive firepower Williams is able to accrue, he has to figure out a way to fix his three-point defense while it's still early, or else this will turn into a long season for everyone at Chapel Hill.
North Carolina will have an extended hiatus before hosting UNC-Wilmington on Dec. 5 at 9 p.m. ET. Michigan begins Big Ten play on Dec. 1 with a marquee matchup against No. 19 Purdue at 3:30 p.m. ET.
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