Pitt brought the intensity on defense John Beilein expected to see from Jamie Dixon's team, making good looks tough to come by Wednesday night at the Preseason NIT in New York's Madison Square Garden. The Wolverines made just enough plays on both ends to emerge with a 67-62 win, advancing to Friday's final against Kansas State.
The Panthers swarmed Michigan's shooters, forcing a handful of long, shot clock triples that didn't fall. Most of U-M's 13 other three-point attempts were contested.
"We all saw today that Pitt has a very good team, a very veteran team," Beilein said. "We sort of anticipated that type of defensive struggle. They really guarded us well. I'm really proud of the way we handled the comeback and got ahead, made our foul shots down the stretch."
Michigan fell behind by eight in the first half before cutting it to four on sophomore point guard Trey Burke's buzzer-beating jumper. Freshman Nik Stauskas helped get the Wolverines out of an offensive funk in immediately nailing a triple off the bench, but even the frosh sniper went only 1-for-4 from behind the arc.
"They really guarded us well," Beilein said. "Nik made that first one, but then he didn't get many other good looks. Without the shot clock threes we were 3-for-13 or something like that, but they guarded us well. We've got to knock those down.
"This is big man basketball now. You've got to make them when people are guarding you, but we haven't had that type of defense on us yet."
Junior Tim Hardaway Jr., meanwhile, came up with big plays in the second half to help U-M finally pull away. He scored and finished off the dribble twice with contact, and his triple from the top - one of the few open looks Michigan managed behind the arc - put the Wolverines up 51-47.
"He's worked so hard on being more than just a shooter," Beilein said. "The big thing his freshman year was we put him in the ball screen, and that's when he really took off that year. He's been much more comfortable in that.
"As far as driving and finishing at the basket, he had a couple really big shots today against strong chests and he still scored. That's something the weight room has done, and a whole lot of practice."
The Wolverines have been practicing Beilein's 1-3-1 zone, as well. They pulled it out in the second half and kept the Panthers off balance in changing the tempo.
The overall result - just enough shots made, including a stretch of 10 straight free throws down the stretch, to advance to final in front of a strong Michigan crowd, one that even added a "Beat Ohio!" chant at the end in preparation for this week's rivalry game.
"When they announced Pitt, they had good cheers," Beilein noted. "[Pitt Coach] Jamie Dixon said at the press conference they've played 44 games here in the last 11 years. Whenever we've come to New York or Connecticut to play, we've really felt the Michigan presence.
"I didn't know how many we had there, but I knew as soon as they said the Michigan name. The 'Beat Ohio' at the end wasn't bad either, to know they were thinking about football, as well."
The 1-3-1 was a bit of a surprise given how Beilein spoke in the preseason of the importance of strong man defense in the Big Ten.
"We've been working on it a little bit just to change things up," he said. "We were really having trouble with their pick and roll action. They're really good at it.
"The big thing was it put them in position to offensive rebound. You usually don't rebound as well out of zones, but certainly in the first half if they did miss, they had a put-back. We thought maybe we could take them out of rhythm. We begin practicing it a little bit ago, but there are a lot of things to it. There's some merit to it because of our length on the wings, the 3, 2, 4 spots, it has a chance to work."
Freshman Glenn Robinson III wasn't aggressive with the ball, but he hit some big shots on his way to 13 points, including a key triple.
"That was big for Glenn. He's been playing well and sort of lets the game come to him," Beilein said. "We'd like him to be a little more assertive. All of a sudden he didn't make his first couple shots, had a tough turnover in the first half that led to a basket. For him to step up, that's what he does though - it's tough to read his body language. He's just playing. He's not as emotional as some other guys, but then he knocked down some big shots for us. He was huge."
Beilein challenged redshirt sophomore Jordan Morgan to be more assertive on the glass, and he responded with seven rebounds.
"We talked so much about this the last couple days, how they were running games off offensive rebounding," Beilein said. "We challenged him to be more physical. The rebounding numbers going in, our numbers as a team were high, but his were not. We felt he needed to be more assertive, and he really was."