| Detroit Free Press
Michigan basketball’s Juwan Howard on Mike Smith’s play vs. Nebraska
Michigan basketball coach Juwan Howard talks Dec. 25, 2020, about Wolverines guard Mike Smith’s big plays vs. the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
It is a somewhat jarring exercise to compare the previous and current Michigan basketball teams because there are plenty of differences.
Last season’s squad was led by the senior combo of point guard Zavier Simpson and center Jon Teske, and everything the Wolverines did seemed to be dictated by its two veterans — especially on offense. Simpson used ball screen after ball screen to whip the ball to open shooters on the perimeter, find teammates at the rim for easy finishes or score himself.
That team was Simpson’s team, through and through, and it was a very good one offensively.
Yet Michigan’s offense, absent Simpson, continues to hum along as the Wolverines reach the quarter mark of their season.
Michigan is now 7-0 after neatly dispatching Nebraska on Christmas Day, 80-69. Through the first six games of their 25-game regular season schedule, Michigan’s offense ranks No. 10 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. On Friday, it averaged 1.14 points per possession, even though it turned the ball over 15 times in 70 possessions and shot just 9 of 27 from 3-point range (4 of 17 in the first half).
While last season’s offense was orchestrated by Simpson, who averaged 12.9 points and 7.9 assists (third-highest in the nation), Michigan has a rotating cast of players who can hurt the opponent on any given night.
Two days before the game, Juwan Howard was asked about the performance of wing Franz Wagner, who was billed as Michigan’s breakout player entering the season, but had averaged just 9.5 points on 6.7 field-goal attempts through the first five games — numbers lower than last season’s.
Howard said he had faith in Wagner and believed he would figure it out. He pointed out Simpson’s imprint on last season’s offense, and how the Wolverines had to adjust to no longer having one of the best passers and creators in program history.
“We have so much depth now that there are gonna be some games where Hunter (Dickinson) may only get five shots, he may only score seven points and Chaundee (Brown) may have 20 points or Franz (Wagner) may have 20 points and Mike (Smith) may have six points,” Howard said.” We have depth.”
Friday’s game played out similarly to what Howard theorized..
Nebraska chose to double center Hunter Dickinson,averaging a team-high 15.8 points as of Friday morning and had twice been named the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Week. Dickinson still got his — 13 points on 5 of 7 shooting and added 15 rebounds and two blocks — but he was more of a cog in Michigan’s offense rather than the focal point, passing out of the post and allowing the Wolverines to capitalize on their 4-on-3 advantage elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Wagner — who scored in double digits just twice in the first five games — was as aggressive as he has been all season in hunting for his own shot. He attacked in transition and off ball screens, getting to the rim, shooting floaters and taking perimeter shots, and scored a team-high 20 points on 9 of 16 shooting — including 11 in the first half.
“I thought I took good shots,” Wagner said after Friday’s game. “Tried to get to the paint, took open 3s. Well played out or pass by the teams. I think that’s what everybody’s supposed to do on the team and if that leads to a win then I’m very happy.”
But, as is the nature of this team, Wagner wasn’t the only source of offense.
Isaiah Livers scored six points in the first half and missed all four of his 3s. In the second half, he made his first three 3s and helped establish a double-digit lead, finishing with 17 points. In 16 minutes off the bench, sixth man Chaundee Brown chipped in 13 points on 5-for-8 shooting. And point guard Mike Smith provided the most important baskets of the game, scoring when Nebraska cut the lead to six, hitting a 3-pointer when that lead dwindled to four and handing out two crucial assists — one in transition and the other in the half-court offense.
“This is not Mike’s first rodeo being a senior,” Howard said. “He’s made a lot of shots, big shots during his days in Columbia. So it’s great for Mike to have the poise and more importantly, the confidence to deliver when his team needed it.”
There should be an added caveat that Michigan has not faced especially difficult competition up to this point. Of the six opponents thus far, Penn State has the best defense, ranking No. 71 in adjusted defensive efficiency.
There will be stouter units as the Wolverines delve further into conference play. But right now, their offense — regardless of the offseason changes — has been the team’s biggest strength. And on Christmas Day, Nebraska learned just how hard it is to slow down Michigan’s varied attack.
“I think we have a good balance of inside play and shooters outside,” Wagner said. “I think we’ve got unselfish players that are willing to pass, and I think it’s very hard to guard.”