- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
Michigan knew it needed to play better if it were to have any shot at success in the Maui Invitational this week.
The Wolverines have done that and will next see either their first opponent from the 2011 NCAA tournament (Tennessee) or their second (Duke).
Michigan, the No. 15 team in the country, crushed No. 8 Memphis, 73-61, and looked more like the team that ended last season on a roll instead of the average-looking one that started this season.
So how did they do it? With a little bit of everything. Michigan coach John Beilein went to a deeper bench, playing little-used Colton Christian and Blake McLimans in the first half. The Wolverines mixed up their defenses and also relied on their freshman point guard to handle tough, lengthy Memphis pressure.
1. Impressive Defense. When it appears a team is much more athletic than an opponent, that is turning into exactly when one should be concerned against a John Beilein-coached team. One of the best strategists in the game -- along with a highly regarded strategic assistant in Jeff Meyer -- Beilein came up with a brilliant plan against Memphis. The Wolverines mixed up man and zone defenses well, keeping the Tigers completely off-balance. Memphis couldn’t figure out what Michigan was doing in post defense.
2. Trey Burke dealt with pressure. Burke, against his first best competition by far so far, handled himself well. He had 14 points, four assists and more impressively just three turnovers against an athletic Memphis team that likes to press and fluster opposing point guards. Instead, the freshman Burke looked like a seasoned veteran. He made correct reads, found open teammates and looked completely comfortable on the floor.
His best play of the day went almost unnoticed. With Michigan holding a lead late and Memphis pressuring the ball successfully, Burke worked his way over to the official and called a timeout just before a 10-second violation. It was a play a veteran point guard would make. Every game, Burke has shown a little more of his potential, and if he improves at this rate, he might end up being Michigan’s next star.
3. Eso Akunne might be playing his way into the rotation. The junior from Ann Arbor was close to cracking the rotation as a freshman before being deemed academically ineligible for the second half of the season. He played a smattering of minutes as a sophomore last season -- usually entering the game when Michigan had two guards in foul trouble.
This season, as a junior, the preferred walk-on might have finally found his way into some minutes off the bench. Akunne played sparingly in the Wolverines’ first three games this season, but he played meaningful minutes off the bench against Memphis.
Granted, some of that might be due to Beilein looking to use more of his bench with three games in three days, but Akunne played well enough against the Tigers to warrant more minutes going forward as a backup combo guard.