ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- When someone handed Michigan coach John Beilein a stat sheet at halftime of his team's game against Houston Baptist on Saturday, he thought his eyes were playing tricks. While building a 60-34 lead, Beilein's Wolverines tallied 18 assists (on 23 made field goals) to just one turnover. Eighteen to one! Even for a man who preaches precision, this was extraordinary.
"That thing that Bo Schembechler is famous for -- the team, the team, the team -- it's hard in today's culture to get that message across," Beilein told me after Michigan's 107-53 win. "The first thing people ask you these days is not how many assists you have. It's how many points you have. So to get people to value the good pass, that's a challenge every day."
Michigan's flyby of Houston Baptist may have been a glorified practice, but it served its dual purpose to a) get the Wolverines past a disappointing stretch in which they lost two out of three games, and b) gain positive momentum heading into Saturday's showdown with top-ranked Arizona in the Crisler Center.
Beilein, 60, is in his 37th season as a head coach, so he is not going to get caught up in outside expectations. Still, he recognizes that his world changed when Michigan made its surprising run to the national championship game last March. This is a younger, different group than the one he coached in that game, but this bunch is nonetheless forced to deal with the fallout. "The fans rushed the court at Iowa State," Beilein said, referring to the Wolverines' 77-70 loss in Ames on Nov. 17. "That's a place where you want to be as a program, but it doesn't make it easier when you get to this point."
And even though they lost at Duke last week to drop to 5-3, the Wolverines have the requisite pieces to make another run in the tournament. The only question is how long it takes for those pieces to fall into place. Michigan is one of the nation's youngest teams; its starting lineup features four sophomores and a freshman, and the first player off the bench is a freshman. So it's going to take some time to bake this cake.
Yes, Beilein would like to see his Wolverines beat Arizona on Saturday, but the more important priority is to prepare for Big Ten play next month. Here are the three areas in which Michigan will most likely improve between now and then:
1. Mitch McGary will get in better shape. McGary's unconventional decision to bypass the NBA draft was a major reason the Wolverines were ranked No. 7 in the AP's preseason poll. But he missed three months of workouts because of a strained back. He made his return against Iowa State, but through nine games, McGary had only participated in eight practices. When Beilein put him through a hard dunking drill last week, McGary was gassed after two minutes. This is a major problem for a player whose primary strength is his energy.
McGary played a season-low 23 minutes on Saturday, but that was mostly due to the victory margin. When he was on the court, he looked mighty impressive while tying his career high in assists with six. Many of those occurred while he led the transition game following defensive rebounds. I told McGary after the game that his new nickname should be "Freight Train" because of the way he came barreling down the court, but he was very much in control of his body and he did a good job avoiding charges. "I'm sure there's going to be a brave soul somewhere along the line that's going to get in his way," Beilein said, "but it hasn't happened yet."
2. Derrick Walton Jr. will become a more confident point guard. The highly touted freshman from Detroit has started every game this season, and though he has been a little sloppy with the ball at times, he has performed well overall. His task is doubly difficult: He has to follow a national player of the year in Trey Burke and pilot one of the more intricate offensive systems in the country. After practice last Friday afternoon, Walton admitted to me that he felt overwhelmed during his early practices. He also confessed that he is not a naturally vocal leader. "I'm kind of an action guy," he said. "I probably count too much on the veteran guys to say something knowing in my mind that I should be the guy to say something. I've got to work on that." When Walton finds his voice, the Wolverines will hit their stride.
3. Nik Stauskas will adjust to being at the top of the scouting report. Last year, Stauskas was a lightly recruited import from Canada who was better known for his YouTube videos than what he was doing at Michigan. He was effective as a standstill shooter playing off Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr.; but now that Stauskas has returned a stronger, more versatile offensive player, he is very much a marked man. He found that out against Duke, which assigned one defender to face-guard Stauskas through the entire game. Beilein described it as a "box-and-one with man-to-man principles." Whatever you want to call the defense, it worked. Stauskas did not make a field goal all night.
Yes, Stauskas turned his left ankle during the second half of Michigan's loss to Charlotte on Nov. 24. But that was a week-and-a-half before the Duke game, and he sat out the Wolverines' next game against Coppin State. During my visit to Ann Arbor, I was told that Stauskas practiced full bore the day before the Duke game. He may not have gotten enough help from his teammates against the Blue Devils, but he also didn't do a good enough job fighting through the defensive attention. I'm guessing that the next time someone tries to thwart him with a junk defense, he and Beilein will have a more effective response.
There are other ways in which this team can get better. It would be nice if sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III asserted himself more, and 6-foot-6 sophomore guard Caris LeVert, who scored a team-high 24 points against Duke, is just beginning to tap into his potential. Mostly, though, Michigan is going through what every other team is going through this time of year -- forging an identity, developing chemistry and building confidence. The important thing is that the talent is there, and the culture is strong. Everyone wearing the maize and blue knows what matters most: The team, the team, the team.
Other Hoop Thoughts
- I have a soft spot in my heart for Chaz Williams, UMass' 5-9 senior point guard, because we see eye to eye. If you haven't seen him in action yet, do it soon. On Saturday, Williams turned in one of the great individual performances of the season when he had 32 points, 15 assists and just one turnover in the Minutemen's 105-96 win over BYU in Springfield. And here's something that doesn't show up on the stat sheet: A big reason why UMass is such a good offensive rebounding team (33rd nationally in offensive rebound percentage, per kempom.com) is because Williams' slashing drives creates defensive rotations, which opens opportunities for his teammates on the glass.
- So maybe Texas is just a little better than we thought? Nice job holding off Temple in Philly to improve to 8-1.
- Is it crazy to suggest that Syracuse's current backcourt of Tyler Ennis and Trevor Cooney is a better tandem than last year's duo of Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche? I'm not talking about which had the better NBA prospects; I'm talking about which makes the better college tandem. If nothing else, Ennis and Conney complement each other better. Ennis is purely a setup man who has tallied 44 assists to just nine turnovers. Cooney is shooting 48 percent from three-point range.
- It was an honor to witness longtime referee Ed Hightower's final game in Ann Arbor on Saturday. After 36 years in the zebra business, Hightower, 61, will retire at the end of this month. He has worked 12 Final Fours and five NCAA championship games, and he told me he is leaving now because he wants to go out before his skills deteriorate. Anyone who has reffed as long as Hightower has taken plenty of abuse, but he is a towering figure who blazed a trail for many African-American officials. Though he is hanging up his whistle, Hightower will continue to work at his day job as superintendent of schools in Edwardsville, Ill.. He was a terrific referee and always a gentleman. The game will miss him.
- Gotta give Wisconsin guard Josh Gasser a ton of credit for the way he chased Virginia's Joe Harris into shooting 1-for-10 from the floor last week. Even though Wisconsin won the game, 48-38, I don't believe that Bo Ryan wants to go back to his tortoise ways. This team is much better suited to get out and go.
- Marcus Smart doesn't need anyone to make excuses for him, but the fact is he was obviously sick during Oklahoma State's loss to Memphis. I mean, the guy was puking into a bucket behind the bench. No wonder he was off his game.
- Injury excuse No. 2: Arizona State point guard Jahii Carson was playing on a badly sprained ankle when the Sun Devils lost to Miami. He shot 2-for-14 from the floor and scored eight points in the three-point loss. Just making sure you knew.
- Interesting to hear Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall on ESPN's college basketball podcast talking about how he noticed all the empty seats while watching games hosted by power conference schools. Marshall said that when his team plays at home, the arena is always filled. That's why he hasn't left.
- Speaking of Wichita State, it's interesting to note that Ron Baker was a walk-on during his first year at the school. Now he's the leading scorer on a top 10 team. Don't you just love stories like that?
- Still speaking of Wichita State, remember the Shockers' "Play Angry" motto? Well, Memphis forward Shaq Goodwin plays happy, and it's a big reason why the Tigers were able to rebound from that blowout loss to Oklahoma State. Goodwin is a strong rebounder who can score around the rim, but the biggest assets he brings this team are his energy, intensity and demeanor. I spy a man crush.
- Interesting -- but hardly surprising -- to read in the Wall Street Journal that the rate of zone possessions this season has increased by 38.4 percent, as calculated by Synergy Sports Technology. This is an obvious offshoot of the new emphasis on eliminating physical defense. Playing more zone is one way of mitigating those changes, but I still think the best teams will learn how to play stifling man-to-man defense without fouling. I promise, it's possible.
- When a point guard dribbles, his handle should be so good that it looks like the ball is on a string. If he's really good, it looks like he's playing with a yo-yo. The best I ever saw at this was Kenny Anderson.
- I love that Michigan State center Adreian Payne has such a good face-up game, but let's remember the guy is 6-foot-10 and 245 pounds. It would help if he posted up once in a while.
- It was amazing to sit on the baseline in the Breslin Center and watch a Tom Izzo-coached team get beasted on the boards. No wonder he said afterward that he was as disappointed as he had been in 20 years.
- One more Spartan thought: Gary Harris has a bad ankle, and it's not going to get better unless he sits for a while. And he does not want to sit.
- Ohio State fans have to be psyched that junior forward LaQuinton Ross has finally started to score. He has averaged 20 points on 63 percent shooting in his last three games. If he keeps getting buckets like that, these Buckeyes will be awfully tough to beat.
- Oregon senior point guard Johnathan Loyd is getting some quality minutes while the regular starter, Dominic Artis, serves his NCAA suspension. Loyd had 23 points (on 14-for-16 free throw shooting) and 15 assists in the Ducks' overtime win at Ole Miss on Sunday night. When Artis returns, it may be harder for him to win back his old job than we thought.
- Broadcasters should always be authentic, but when you're working a game in an empty gym (as was often the case over Thanksgiving week), you need to supply the energy the arena lacks. I'm surprised more of them don't do that.
- Weird how Gabe York has disappeared for Arizona. The 6-3 sophomore came out like gangbusters, but he has averaged 3.6 points on 29 percent shooting in his last five games. In the win over UNLV, York played six minutes and did not score.
- Speaking of weird, Louisville guard Luke Hancock's shooting percentages are way down from last year: 31.4 from the floor (down from 42.9) and 22.9 from three (down from 39.9). Something to keep an eye on.
- Freshman point guard Frank Mason started for Kansas on Saturday against Colorado, displacing junior Naadir Tharpe. This is a risky move for team chemistry, but give Bill Self credit: He is going to play the guys who deserve to play. And the team simply runs better with Mason at the point.
- I've never understood why coaches get so much time to replace a player who has fouled out.
- Last week, I wrote about the superb play of Wake Forest guard Cody Miller-McIntyre during the Battle 4 Atlantis. Keep your eye on this kid. He put up 26 in the Demon Deacons' win over Richmond on Saturday. I think he's a pro.
- If you're making a list of good players on bad teams, make sure you include N.C. State sophomore forward T.J. Warren. He is averaging 23 points and 7 rebounds; once his three-point shooting kicks in, he'll be unstoppable.
- Jabari Parker may be the best offensive player in the country, but every coach I've talked to who has scouted Duke has told me he is an average defender at best.
- Wouldn't have guessed that in December we'd be calling Cameron Bairstow New Mexico's best player. But he is.
- I appreciate that the airline industry succumbed to the pressure I applied via Twitter to allow passengers to use electronic devices on takeoff and descent, but I never intended for them to allow people to yack on their cell phones in flight. That's the last thing civilization needs. Please rescind immediately.
- Keep in mind when you see these Harvard scores that the Crimson is down two starters because of injuries: 6-8 junior center Kenyatta Smith (foot) and 6-1 senior guard Brandyn Curry (Achilles strain). This could be a very dangerous team come March, but they need to be at full strength.
- Normally a player makes a significant improvement from his freshman to his sophomore season, but Duke guard Rasheed Sulaimon and Kentucky forward Alex Poythress are definitely first-team All-Regression. And UConn guard Omar Calhoun isn't far behind.
- Baylor's main strength will always be its frontcourt, but if junior college transfer point guard Kenny Cherry can turn in more performances like the one against Kentucky last Friday night (18 points, 5 assists), then that will be a game changer.
- I love the Dougie and Creighton can be awfully hard to beat when everyone is making jump shots, but I'd still like to see the Bluejays play a little more inside-out.
- How about Drexel winning back-to-back triple-overtime games against Alabama and Cleveland State?
Read more: Five Games I'm Psyched To See This Week, Colorado's Tad Boyle, Top 25
Five Games I'm Psyched To See This Week
Boise State at Kentucky, Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPN
Are the Broncos ready to justify the faith of some folks (cough, cough) who have been ranking them in their top 25? I say yes -- though it would help if Boise State's leading scorer, Anthony Drmic, broke out of his three-point shooting slump.
Boise State 70, Kentucky 69
Kansas at Florida, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN
The Gators are hoping to have point guard Scott Wilbekin back for this game, but I still don't think that will be enough to overcome a Jayhawks squad that should be plenty angry after its loss at Colorado over the weekend. Don't look now, but Andrew Wiggins played his best game since the win over Duke four weeks ago.
Kansas 75, Florida 71
This is not a vintage Bob Huggins team, but it still won't be easy to win in Morgantown. I am very curious to see if the Zags are for real.
Gonzaga 72, West Virginia 64
Milwaukee at Wisconsin, Wednesday, 8 p.m.
Okay, so "psyched" may be a strong word here, but what can I say, it's a light week. The Panthers are coming in with a 9-2 record, so the Badgers better be ready to compete.
Wisconsin 71, Milwaukee 63
New Mexico State at Arizona, Wednesday, 9 p.m., Pac-12 Network
It's always interesting to see the Aggies' 7-5 sophomore center Sim Bhullar in action, but they are going to be overwhelmed going up against the nation's newly crowned No. 1 team.
Arizona 85, New Mexico State 65
A Few Minutes With ... Colorado Coach Tad Boyle
SI.com: So that was quite a moment on Saturday when Askia Booker hit a buzzer beater to beat Kansas. Was that the shot you were looking for out of the time out?
Boyle: We have a play called "winner" that can be run out of bounds from every spot. That one was full-court "winner." It was designed to get the ball to Spencer Dinwiddie in the middle of the floor and let him make a play. But we couldn't get the ball to Spencer, so Xavier Johnson found Booker on the sideline. So it was a designed play that didn't go to the designed person, but obviously it went to the right guy.
SI.com: How many games have you won by buzzer beater during your career?
Boyle: Not many. I think at Northern Colorado we may have won one. We thought we did last year against Arizona, but they said we didn't get the shot off in time.
SI.com: Dinwiddie was a big recruit for you coming out of southern California. What was it about him that made you want him so badly?
Boyle: USC passed on him and UCLA flirted with him, but we recruited him extremely hard. I think he visited Oregon and Harvard before he chose Colorado. I've never recruited somebody as a head coach as hard as I recruited him. I felt he was a must get -- his size, his skill, his demeanor, his maturity level. He was only about 165 pounds as a senior in high school, but he really had a great feel for the game.
SI.com: You played for Larry Brown at Kansas. What was the biggest philosophy you learned from him that you apply today?
Boyle: There are two things. First, when I got my first head coaching job, he said to me, "Make sure your teams defend every night and rebound every night, and you'll give yourself a chance to win." The second thing is that the game should be played unselfishly. You have to get your players to buy into the team concept.
SI.com: After you left Kansas, you became a commodities broker in Colorado and were making pretty good money. What made you give that up to go into coaching?
Boyle: I was coaching high school basketball on the side. In Colorado, the market closes at 2 o'clock, so I could be in the gym by 3:30. I realized that when my head hit the pillow at night, I was thinking about my basketball team. I wasn't thinking about interest rates. I played at Kansas with Mark Turgeon, and he was working for Jerry Green as an assistant at Oregon. They offered me their restricted earnings position for $16,000 a year, and I took it.
SI.com: I read where you got into a really bad car accident around that time. Did that play a role in your career change?
Boyle: Absolutely. I was driving to work one day and a lady who was driving east was looking into the sun, and she didn't see me roll into the intersection. I don't remember a thing that happened. I woke up in the hospital. The airbag saved my life, thank goodness. Something like that really changes your perspective on life.
This Week's AP Ballot
* Last week's rankings in parentheses
1. Arizona (3)
2. Syracuse (4)
3. Ohio State (5)
4. Michigan State (1)
5. Duke (7)
6. Louisville (8)
7. Kansas (6)
8. Wisconsin (13)
9. Wichita State (9)
10. Kentucky (2)
11. Oklahoma State (11)
12. Memphis (12)
13. UConn (14)
14. Florida (10)
15. Iowa State (15)
16. Villanova (16)
17. Baylor (22)
18. Colorado (24)
19. Iowa (17)
20. Oregon (18)
21. UMass (19)
22. San Diego State (20)
23. North Carolina (NR)
24. New Mexico (21)
25. Boise State (25)
Dropped out: Dayton (23)
Four of my top 10 teams from last week lost, yet none was devastating. Yes, Michigan State looked bad in losing at home to North Carolina, but almost every top team has suffered a bad loss this season. I figured I'd give the Spartans a mulligan. Nor did it seem right to penalize Kansas and Florida for losing road games at the buzzer to Colorado and UConn, respectively. Kentucky deserved to take the biggest hit after its loss to Baylor in Arlington, Texas, but even that was no cause for shame.
The real head scratcher of the bunch is North Carolina. When you dominate a team on its home floor, you should be ranked above them, right? Not necessarily. North Carolina's two losses came against teams (Belmont and UAB) that I believe will be in the NCAA tournament. The easiest thing to do at this point is to throw a dart and rank the Tar Heels where it lands. Is 23 too high or too low? The answer is yes.
You might be surprised that I did not rank Missouri after its win over UCLA. Keep in mind that I was one of the few voters who had not ranked the Bruins in the first place, so that undercut Mizzou's case somewhat. Unfortunately, because the SEC is weak (again), Missouri is not scheduled to face a ranked team until Kentucky on Feb. 1.
As for other teams I left off my ballot, I know Indiana fans keep arguing for their Hoosiers, but IU looked overmatched in its loss at Syracuse last week. The good news for Indiana is four of its first seven league games are in Bloomington. The bad news is two of those are against Michigan State and Wisconsin.
It seems like I write about Pittsburgh's schedule every week, but despite the Panthers' undefeated record they still have not earned a rank-worthy win. Even if they beat Cincinnati on Dec. 17, that might not be enough. Still, if Pitt is one of the nation's last unbeaten teams in a few weeks, it will be tough to keep leaving them out.
I took my first serious look this week at Oklahoma, which has an 8-1 record. The Sooners' best wins have been over Alabama, Seton Hall and George Mason. Hardly a murderer's row. OU opens 2014 with a road date at Texas followed by home games against Kansas and Iowa State. So we'll know very soon whether this team is legit.
Among the mid-major schools, I checked in on Toledo, which is still rolling along at 8-0. The Rockets' best win came at Boston College on Nov. 14. If they want to get ranked, all they have to do is win at Kansas on Dec. 30. No problem, right?