With a little over a minute remaining Wednesday night, Michigan coach John Beilein emptied his bench. If there is any question of the growth of this Michigan basketball team early in the season, it is this.
Yes, UCLA is a team finding its way right now, but the Wolverines at points ran them off the floor and were able to play everyone against a marquee college basketball program in a convincing 79-63 win.
How good of a night was it for Michigan? Zack Novak set a career-high with 22 points and was supremely efficient on 7 of 8 shooting.
1. The emergence of Jon Horford
The sophomore forward and younger brother of NBA All-Star Al Horford has always had the potential to be a really good player. He showed glimpses of it as a raw offensive player with good defensive and rebounding instincts at Grand Ledge (Mich.) High School as a senior. He followed it up with efficient flashes as a freshman.
On Wednesday in Maui against UCLA, he took another step. Horford scored all of his career-high 12 points in the first half and also grabbed seven rebounds. But the move that showed how much potential he has came late in the first half when he received the ball in the post, spun back and hit a feathery fadeaway jump shot from 6 feet away. If he develops more offensive post moves like that, he could end up being a special player for Michigan. He showed Wednesday why Beilein started him in the exhibition and the season opener earlier in November.
2. The continued growth of Tim Hardaway Jr.
After a night where Duke neutralized Michigan’s star sophomore for a half, Hardaway Jr. put together a complete game against UCLA on Wednesday. He played well both from the perimeter and driving to the basket -- especially on a through-the-lane one-handed dunk. This was the progression Michigan had hoped to see from Hardaway Jr., a more aggressive game where at points he could take over within the flow of the offense.
He scored 20 points, grabbed four rebounds and had four assists -- and also played good defense.
While Michigan would have loved to have played in the championship game of the Maui Invitational, it certainly can be pleased with this result. It beat a quality team in Memphis, played Duke tough and beat a UCLA team that it should have as the Bruins are a struggling, lost bunch right now. But a 2-1 record in Hawaii heading into the Big Ten/ACC Challenge at Virginia next week is a big confidence boost for a team still coming together. This, though, has to be the crispest Michigan has looked in the early season.
And that equity -- that comes in March. Michigan can now file away at least one -- and maybe two if UCLA pulls it together -- good RPI wins for the NCAA tournament resume. It is still a long season, but this is probably the first time in Beilein’s five seasons his team will be playing for NCAA tournament seeding instead of making sure it makes the tournament. That can be considered a successful Maui Invitational by almost any non-Duke metric.