As the competition looks to upgrade, Michigan basketball needs to improve

ANN ARBOR – Late in the first half of a tight game, Juwan Howard called out to his five starters to come to the sidelines for an impromptu pep talk before two free throws.

What did Howard say?

Freshman Jett Howard referred that question to his veteran teammate, graduate Jaelin Llewellyn.

“I think most of the time he was just like, ‘You guys have to play harder. And put it on the defensive and don’t let the offense invade the defense.’”

Howard smiled and added: “Yes he will translate the clean part because I don’t want to say exactly what he said. But that was basically the gist of it.”

Michigan beat Jackson State 78-68 on Wednesday night and improved to 5-1. But it’s clear the Wolverines aren’t happy with the product on the pitch, and they still have work to do before the competition intensifies.

Rebound, an issue early in the season, was indeed an issue for Michigan. Jackson State, like Ohio on Sunday, was grossly undersized compared to Michigan but still hit the glass hard. Jackson State had 15 offensive rebounds to Michigan’s five.

Slow starts were an issue early in the season. “I guess we’re just a team that takes some time to get into the flow of the game,” said Jett Howard. “We’re trying to fix that.”

The exterior shots were… OK. Michigan is up 31.8 percent for the season. Given the quality of the shot attempts, that number is likely to be higher. Starting backcourt Llewellyn and runner-up Kobe Bufkin are a combined 7-for-46 of 3. Inaccurate passes — not delivered to the firing range idea — have often contributed.

Juwan Howard wants his players to keep shooting. He’s big on breeding confidence. And despite some of Wednesday’s frustrating mistakes, particularly early on, he pointed out that Michigan finished 12-to-30 from deep (40 percent).

Defense is the bigger problem, at least statistically. The effort on that end is perhaps why Howard benched all five starters at one point in the first half for the second game in a row.

One of those starters, Hunter Dickinson, confirmed what was going on on Sunday. On Wednesday, Llewellyn and Jett Howard said they hadn’t thought of a message being sent.

Juwan Howard said it’s more about using his depth and giving his starters some rest.

Regardless, the Wolverines have some questions coming into the Thanksgiving break.

“We’re trying to get our rhythm going both offensively and defensively and we’re hoping to be better by January,” Jett Howard said.

How about see you next week?

Fifth-placed Virginia, 5-0 with victories over ranked teams Baylor and Illinois, visits the Crisler Center for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Tuesday. The next day, the Wolverines travel to London where they face No. 15 Kentucky on December 4. The start of the Big Ten follows in Minnesota. The Wolverines play No. 1 in Charlotte on December 21st. 1 North Carolina.

“It’s early in the season,” Howard said. “I’m sure a lot of teams like us don’t play their best basketball. We’re getting better and better from game to game.”

In a long season that will be judged most by what happens in March, the Wolverines obviously have time. But their best win to date, at least according to the computer rankings, is against a Pittsburgh team that might be… bad. Michigan followed with a dud against Arizona State.

The Wolverines take two days off for Thanksgiving, then return to the gym to prepare for a hard stretch.

Llewellyn spoke about what needs improvement.

“I think we’ll just keep working on our defense and playing hard,” he said. “Communication is a big focus. We try to focus on that in practice. But a win is a win and we can learn a lot from wins and losses, so let’s take it one step at a time.”

With the season underway and about to heat up, these steps may need to be a bit bigger.

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