Commentary

Wolverines unsteady with Maui on tap

Beilein offense takes time to synch; tournament field will provide stern test

Updated: November 20, 2011, 8:16 PM ET
By Michael Rothstein | WolverineNation

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan coach John Beilein used the term "average" to describe the way his team played Thursday night against Western Illinois.

For Michigan to have success this week at the Maui Invitational it needs to be a lot better than that.

"It's kind of coming together," Michigan redshirt sophomore forward Jordan Morgan said. "But I think it's coming together for everybody. When it starts to click for everybody as a team, we're going to be really dangerous."

John Beilein
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesJohn Beilein knows his team will have to be better in Maui than it has been so far this season.
Thus far this season, No. 17 Michigan has been what its coach said it was. For every impressive stretch -- a 21-0 start against Towson -- there has been one equally unimpressive -- being outscored by the Tigers the rest of the game, an uninspired offensive performance against Division II Ferris State and the aforementioned average game.

Historically, a Beilein-coached team peaks toward the end of the season, not the beginning. Early struggles make sense. Unlike a lot of other programs -- including some the Wolverines will see in the Maui Invitational, which starts Monday -- Beilein's offense is so much about timing and intricacy.

That takes time, especially with a freshman, Trey Burke, starting at point guard. Combine that with tough competition -- Michigan could play three consecutive ranked teams in Maui, starting with No. 10 Memphis -- and it leads to a difficult task at best.

"You are playing the best teams in the country early on," senior guard Zack Novak said. "Especially the way we play, which is so intellectual, I think sometimes it just takes a little bit more time to learn and get a feel for each other and what we're doing out there as opposed to, let's be honest, some coaches have five McDonald's All-Americans out there and can just roll the balls out and let's go play.

"That's what they do in November, but then March comes around and we're clicking and we're able to counteract that."

With Beilein, the early season exempt tournaments have been a mix-and-match of success, expected results and failure. Last season, in the Legends Classic, Michigan lost to then-No. 9 Syracuse, 53-50, and then was beaten handily by UTEP, 65-56.

The season before that, Michigan went 1-2 in the Old Spice Classic at Walt Disney World in Florida.

In 2008-09, Beilein had his most successful early season tournament at Michigan, reaching the finals of the 2K Sports Classic -- beating then-No. 4 UCLA in the semifinals, 55-52, before losing to then-No. 10 Duke, 71-56. In Beilein's first season, Michigan went 1-2 at the Great Alaska Shootout.

"Every year, we have to get used to playing together offensively," senior guard Stu Douglass said. "That's just a big part of our team, and teams throw different looks at us, especially early on. I remember last year, UTEP threw a completely different look that we hadn't seen, and after that we were prepared for it.

"But we hadn't really seen it, weren't prepared for it, and you learn from those things early on, so maybe that can account for some of it."

Which is why, as much as Michigan wants to win the Maui Invitational, it realizes that a negative result in Hawaii doesn't mean the end of a season -- it just provides a baseline for what the Wolverines need to improve on.

Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at michaelrothsteinespn@gmail.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.

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