Overview: The Wolverines were fluid from the field, shooting 61.7 percent in their 79-63 victory over UCLA in the third-place game of the Maui Invitational. After amassing a double-digit lead early, the Wolverines held off every UCLA spurt. Midway through the second half, they were coasting against a Bruins squad that is off to a disastrous 1-4 start. Tim Hardaway Jr. scored 20 points and Zack Novak led all scorers with 22.
Turning point: Down 8-6 early in the game, the Wolverines dazed UCLA with a 13-0 run. The Bruins couldn’t afford an early deficit, but midway through the first half found themselves down by double-digits. This was a turning point on the scoreboard, but it was also a psychological transition. The Wolverines had already beaten the wounded Bruins mentally with their early rally. The Bruins' body language suggested that they’d already envisioned the outcome: another loss.
Why Michigan won: The Wolverines took advantage of UCLA’s size by running the floor and scoring in transition off 12 turnovers against a slower Bruins team. The Wolverines got an unexpected contribution from sophomore big man Jon Horford, who had a career-high 12 points (all in the first half). His success inside spread the floor far more than UCLA anticipated. The result: Michigan hit 7 of its 14 3-point attempts, many uncontested. The Wolverines kept the Bruins guessing on defense.
Why UCLA lost: The Bruins couldn’t close the gap against the Wolverines because they couldn’t find a consistent offensive attack against Michigan’s 1-3-1 and man-to-man schemes. UCLA’s starters were 2-for-13 from beyond the arc. Joshua Smith scored 12 points, but committed 6 turnovers and he couldn’t get up the floor when UCLA needed him. Michigan took a 7-point halftime lead, one that wasn’t insurmountable. But the Wolverines did a great job of doubling down whenever the Bruins got the ball inside. The Wolverines were comfortable putting pressure inside and letting UCLA’s shooters scrape the rims with errant shots (41.8 percent from the field overall). UCLA struggled to get buckets whenever the ball wasn’t in the paint. Bottom line.
Star of the game: Novak was 4-for-5 from beyond the arc on his way to 22 points, a career high. The Bruins simply didn’t have a way to guard him.
What it means for Michigan: The Wolverines learned a lot about themselves in Maui. There were major concerns about their point-guard situation entering the tournament. But freshman Trey Burke proved to be an impressive floor leader. The Wolverines also solidified their standing as Big Ten contenders. Right now, Hardaway is as good as any player in the league that’s not named Sullinger. Michigan spread teams out with its 3-point shooting. This team is often undersized, but outplayed Memphis and UCLA, two teams with talented big men inside. Michigan's biggest concern going forward will be avoiding overconfidence. Iowa State, Virginia and Oakland are ahead. They’re not Duke, Memphis or UCLA, but the Wolverines have to approach those games with the same intensity to avoid upsets.
What it means for UCLA: It just continues to get worse for Ben Howland's group. The Bruins can’t score. They’re very big inside but they’re slow, so teams can hit shots outside and score in transition against them. They settle for bad shots and just seem so dejected right now. Howland’s future with the program is going to the subject of a lot of barbershop banter. This is a Bruins squad that entered the year with a preseason national ranking. Now, they’re 1-4 and declining. They have off-court issues, too, with Reeves Nelson’s challenges. They’re off to a bad start. Utter disaster might be around the corner.
More observations: I think the Wolverines will be in trouble when they face more balanced teams. They had problems with Smith and Travis Wear inside. The fact that they’re double-teaming in the paint so often makes me wonder what they’ll do against a team that can actually hit shots from outside and hold its own in the paint. The Big Ten features a number of beefy forwards who could have their way with the Wolverines (Jared Sullinger, Trevor Mbakwe, Draymond Green). … How about Horford? How he scored his 12 points was just as important as the career-high total. He hit a turnaround jump shot. He had easy layups. He was active offensively. He could be an X-factor down the stretch … Wear showed off his range, hitting both of his 3-point attempts, but UCLA needed him to play inside more in the first half. … UCLA had opportunities to even the score, but the Bruins didn’t seem to have the mental juice to pull it off. Winning is contagious. So is losing. Bad news for the Bruins.
What’s next: Michigan has warranted legitimate Big Ten title contender talk, especially with Burke’s debut. Now the Wolverines have to get through the rest of their nonconference slate. Their first real test in Big Ten play won’t come until a Jan. 8 meeting with 11th-ranked Wisconsin. UCLA, meanwhile, must make the offensive adjustments necessary to score consistently. On defense, the Bruins have to find a way to guard the entire floor. And that’s probably going to mean less Smith, even though he can be an offensive asset. They can’t afford the defensive liability.