Sims stars, but chemistry shines in win over Duke
Top flight recruits celebrated by taking pictures on the enhanced Block M at center court of the new Crisler Arena floor, but only after hundreds of students, parents and a few terrified Michigan players caught in the melee made their way off. Nobody wanted to leave following U-M's 81-73 win over Duke, its second victory over a top five team this year … and nobody could blame them.
This is the time of year RPIs are made, head coach John Beilein said a few weeks ago, and his teams have made this statement:
If Michigan basketball isn't back, it's well on its way.
Something special seems to be brewing in Ann Arbor, indeed, and while it's in the building literally even more in the shadow of a football stadium in the middle of a massive renovation, all of Wolverine nation seems to be jumping on board.
But one of the few maybe not surprised was a football guy - head coach Rich Rodriguez, who nodded knowingly in the aftermath, having witnessed Beilein's work before at West Virginia.
"What a great atmosphere, huh?" Beilein said in the postgame, beaming at packed media center that, for the last decade or so, has seen as few as a handful of reporters show up for press conferences.
Snow kept many from arriving on time, but eventually the seats filled, the 13,000-plus deafening at times, louder with each possession the Wolverines hung around. The hundreds of Duke fans who came out to see the latest Blue Devils' road kill were drowned out by students who camped out overnight for the best seats, alumni who braved icy roads to drive hours on the chance that the Wolverines would pull the upset.
Zack Novak, the "afterthought" freshman who passed up an offer from Valparaiso for a shot at the Big Ten, had blue paint smeared on his maize jersey from a student who had covered his body, a new fan favorite after scoring 14 points, six on a pair of key triples after Duke seized a 53-50 lead at the 8:38 mark. He and sophomore Kelvin Grady were tossed around among the celebrating crowd before weaving through to accept congratulations from the Duke players.
"Oh my goodness … I couldn't even breathe!" an exasperated Grady said after helping clinch the win with clutch free throws down the stretch. The point guard contributed nine points and four assists – more importantly, no turnovers in 28 minutes – and used his speed in the open court to control the game like Beilein has willed him to in the last two years. "I was jumping up and down, but after two minutes I was ready to weave my way out of there."
But not far. The team's rendition of 'The Victors' shook the doors of the locker room, while across the hall Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski heaped praise upon team that, player for player, seemed to have no business competing with mighty Duke. It was like a rock concert before the game when dozens of Blue Devils' fans clamored for close-ups of their team, confident of victory. Many pointed to a big win at Purdue a week earlier as evidence that the Wolverines shouldn't pose much of a challenge.
But the best player on the floor didn't wear Duke blue, but maize and blue. Junior DeShawn Sims scored 28 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, continuing to evolve into the player Beilein expects him to be. Loose balls were his … if not, he shielded bodies until a teammate could get to it. He made 10 of his 16 shots, two of three triples, and even helped U-M win the rebounding battle, 35-34.
Sophomore Manny Harris remained patient and picked his spots despite tough Duke defense, cutting backdoor for a key lay-up with 3:39 to go, finishing another drive with an emphatic, two-handed slam though the middle of the lane at the 1:36 mark.
Duke's shooters helped matters by settling for uncharacteristically long shots, especially in the first half when the Blue Devils went 2-for-18 from long range, but even Beilein was impressed when he glanced at the stats, finally noticing the opponent still shot 47 percent for the game.
"That doesn't happen very much with us, does it? Once again, they missed a lot of shots. I don't know what their percentage ended up being … 41 percent? No, 47 percent. I guess we rebounded it pretty good," he said with a laugh.
But they'll still look at the scoreboard more than they'll look at the rebounding stat, said Beilein, and why not? The Wolverines are now 6-2 with two wins against elite programs, winning while shooting well and shooting poorly, racking up 20-point wins when losing the rebounding battle, even scrapping from 20 down at the half to pull out an overtime win over outmanned Savannah State.
The roller coaster will continue through year two, Beilein insisted with no hesitation. But what a ride it's been already in just the second year of his tenure. Walk-ons continue to play significant minutes and contribute – senior C.J. Lee knocked down two clutch free throws of his own with 32 seconds to go, while fellow senior David Merritt started and controlled the tempo until Grady took over. Forgotten senior Jevohn Shepherd contributed 32 minutes and some outstanding defense and rebounding in starting for redshirt junior Anthony Wright.
Beilein insisted he'd continue tinkering with his lineups through Dec. 20, when he faces another wonderful line-up "problem"… finding playing time for one of his best players in transfer guard Laval Lucas-Perry, at which point a few more players will lose some minutes.
There will be no long faces when that day comes, Grady predicted. Chemistry is everything on Beilein teams, after all, and as opponents are quickly finding out, an underrated avenue to victory.
"I wake up every day knowing my team has a chip on their shoulder and I'm going to come in to a coaching staff that really knows what they're doing," said Grady. "I'm extremely happy to be on this team."