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Michigan basketball survives first 3 games, moves on to more difficult schedule

Wolverines defeat Bowling Green, Oakland, Ball State to begin season

Isaiah Livers #2 of the Michigan Wolverines drives to the basket against K.J. Walton #1 of the Ball State Cardinals during the second half at Crisler Arena on December 02, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Isaiah Livers #2 of the Michigan Wolverines drives to the basket against K.J. Walton #1 of the Ball State Cardinals during the second half at Crisler Arena on December 02, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (2020 Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The Michigan basketball team survived the first three games on its schedule and will now play against much tougher competition the rest of the season.

Juwan Howard’s team defeated Ball State by 19 points Wednesday to improve to 3-0 on the season. Isaiah Livers led the way with 21 points, and Franz Wagner and Hunter Dickinson also scored in double figures.

Michigan’s 3-0 start

Other than a five-minute stretch at the end of the first half -- which saw Ball State cut a 20-point Michigan lead down to seven -- the Wolverines were in complete control. It was a much stronger performance than the last time Michigan took the court against Oakland.

The Golden Grizzlies, who have lost their other four games by a combined 136 points, led Michigan for much of the second half and took the Wolverines to overtime before ultimately running out of gas. Three days before taking Michigan to overtime, Oakland lost to Toledo by 27. Two days after leaving the Crisler Center, Oakland lost to Purdue by 43.

Brachen Hazen #12 of the Ball State Cardinals and Hunter Dickinson #1 of the Michigan Wolverines jump for a rebound during the second half at Crisler Arena on December 02, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (2020 Getty Images)

That performance, along with upsets from some other teams around the country, bumped Michigan from No. 25 to unranked in this week’s AP poll.

But at the end of the day, all that matters is Michigan survived against Bowling Green, Oakland and Ball State. Other teams, such as Pittsburgh (lost to St. Francis by 16), Georgia Tech (losses to Georgia State and Mercer) and Washington (lost to UC Riverside by 15), would love to have an overtime win against Oakland instead of those unsightly losses.

In fact, Michigan’s win over Bowling Green might even turn out to be a minor resume builder. The Eagles are favored to win the MAC this season and have a future NBA player in Justin Turner. The scare against Oakland was a bit of a social media embarrassment, but 3-0 is 3-0.

Coming up

In this COVID-19-shortened season, Michigan only has five non-conference games before the start of Big Ten play.

The next two opponents -- Central Florida and N.C. State -- are both possible NCAA Tournament teams, so Michigan’s tune-up games are over.

UCF has only played once this season, knocking off Auburn by eight points. The Knights will play their next three games on the road at Michigan, No. 10 Houston and No. 22 Florida State.

Then, the Wolverines host N.C. State as part of the B1G-ACC Challenge.

The Wolfpack is off to a 2-0 start with wins over Charleston Southern and North Florida by an average of 34.5 points.

Franz Wagner #21 of the Michigan Wolverines looks on during the second half against the Ball State Cardinals at Crisler Arena on December 02, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (2020 Getty Images)

Michigan would likely sneak back into the rankings with a pair of wins, just in time to host Penn State to tip off conference play.

The Big Ten is loaded this season, with six teams currently ranked in the top 25 and possibly as many as 10 NCAA Tournament contenders.

It was critical for Michigan to survive its first three games, as the next 23 will be a challenge if Howard wants to get his squad into the Big Dance.

Balanced attack

Livers and Wagner give Michigan a nice one-two punch, though they’re doing it in very different ways. Livers is a scoring machine inside and out, while Wagner is still looking to find his shot. Wagner impacts the game in other ways, playing elite defense thanks to his length and pulling down 9.5 rebounds per game.

Two members of the 2020 recruiting class -- Dickinson and Terrance Williams -- rescued Michigan against Oakland. Dickinson was unstoppable around the rim, and Williams scored seven points of his own while hitting the offensive boards and feeding Dickinson inside.

Mike Smith and Eli Brooks have been quietly solid in the backfield, while Chaundee Brown exploded for 19 points against Bowling Green.

Brandon Johns Jr. and starting center Austin Davis round out the regular rotation. All nine players average double digit minutes per game.

True freshman Zeb Jackson has also gotten an opportunity off the bench.

Michigan’s next game is scheduled for 4 p.m. Sunday against UCF at the Crisler Center.


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