ANN ARBOR, Michigan — No. 5 Michigan basketball has become all too accustomed to slow starts recently.
After sluggish performances against South Carolina and Western Michigan, the Wolverines looked to shake out of the doldrums against Air Force. But they struggled to adjust to the Falcons’ zone early on Saturday, missing nine of their first 10 shots from the field and falling into a 10-5 hole.
But U-M ripped off an 11-0 run over the next 5 minutes, asserting its athletic and physical superiority by blocking four shots and forcing 11 turnovers on its way to a seven-point halftime lead.
This lead would never be in much danger, as the Wolverines (12-0) poured in 43 points on 54 percent shooting in the second half to run away with a 71-50 win over Air Force at Crisler Center. By no means was this Michigan’s most dominant performance, but Saturday turned into a comfortable, efficient win — something the Wolverines haven’t had in a while.
Ignas Brazdeikis and Charles Matthews paced U-M with 19 and 17 points, respectively, while Isaiah Livers and Jordan Poole each scored 11. Lavelle Scottie led the Falcons (4-7) with 16.
A familiar challenge
On Thursday, Michigan coach John Beilein compared Air Force to Holy Cross in terms of playing style, stating that the Falcons have a little bit more size and experience.
On Nov. 10, the Crusaders jumped to an 18-9 lead over the Wolverines on the strength of a disciplined matchup zone and Princeton offense. U-M couldn’t find a way to solve the zone, shooting just 3-for-12 from the field and 1-for-5 from 3-point range.
Saturday was much of the same. The Wolverines generated several open 3-pointers, but hit only one of their first nine.
With 11:51 in the first half, though, Poole made a nifty backdoor cut for an easy lay-in, followed by a corner 3 with 8:36 to play. After Poole’s make, the Wolverines shot 45 percent from 3-point range for the rest of the game.
Michigan was able to figure out Holy Cross’ unique style in November, and on Saturday, they were able to crack a similar style once again.
Michigan coach John Beilein reacts to a 3-point basket during the first half on Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018, at Crisler Center. (Photo: Rick Osentoski TODAY Sports)
Wolverines flex their athleticism
Air Force ranks 334th in the nation in turnover rate, according to KenPom.com, and does not play anyone over 6-foot-7. Michigan had no problem taking advantage.
Halfway through the first half, Eli Brooks — who came into the game with only one block — flew in on a chase-down block against Air Force’s Sid Tomes’s layup out of bounds. Later, Matthews came from the weak side for an even more emphatic rejection, one of four blocked shots for the Wolverines before halftime.
Michigan’s 11-0 run midway through the first half came on the back of five Falcon turnovers, starting after Zavier Simpson jumped a passing lane and kicked ahead to Brooks for a fast-break layup.
Backup center still up for grabs
Beilein said last Saturday that Austin Davis played in relief of starting center Jon Teske against WMU mostly due to the Broncos’ size. He hinted that against a smaller Air Force team, Livers and even Brandon Johns might see more time behind Teske.
Johns, a freshman yet to carve out his place in the rotation, made his first appearance with 8:04 to go in the first half, replacing Teske. He made little impact, and committed a shooting foul 48 seconds after checking in, ending his short stint.
While Johns failed to take advantage of what might have been a key opportunity, Davis didn’t even get off the bench against Air Force.
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