After rolling in the preliminary home rounds over IUPUI and Cleveland State by an average of 33.5 points, Michigan now makes the trip to the legendary Madison Square Garden in New York to compete for the NIT Season Tip-Off. The first semifinal pits Jamie Dixon’s Pittsburgh Panthers against John Beilein’s Wolverines, a matchup of two undefeated teams and the first matchup for either team against a high major opponent. Here are a few things to watch out for in the primetime battle (9:30pm on ESPN2).
- Big Stage Jitters: As mentioned before, both teams are playing a BCS-level opponent for the first time this season and both will be playing under the bright lights in New York City with the nation watching. The NCAA Tournament is more than four months away, and not a single conference game has been played yet, but this semifinal has the feel of March for both sides. A Michigan win would keep them in the top five in the country and set the stage for them to win a solid preseason tournament while a Pitt win would almost certainly see them jump into the top 20 and give them a high-quality win on the resume. Dixon’s squad missed the Big Dance for the first time since 2001 last season, and they will certainly be hungry to get back where they belong. A victory tomorrow would be huge, so Michigan needs to play hard and calm to prevent a semi-upset from happening. Both teams have veteran leaders in Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. for Michigan and Tray Woodall and J.J. Moore for Pitt, but freshmen will need to step up in key roles for each side as well. An unfamiliar backdrop and court could also affect both teams early on, but the team that comes out calm and confident should have an early leg up.
- Strong Start: Michigan has had no problem dispatching of lesser teams by the midway point through the first half, but it has been a bit of a struggle for Pittsburgh in the early goings. The Panthers found themselves down by 14 points at halftime and by as many as 18 in the second half last Saturday before making a huge comeback and taking Oakland down by 10 points in overtime. Before that, Pitt led by only five points over Lehigh at the half despite limiting All American C.J. McCollum’s effectiveness throughout. Beilein has certainly noticed this in his film study and will urge his team to come out strong on both ends to jump out to an early lead. So far this season Michigan’s coaches have stressed getting three straight stops to start the game; an early six- or seven-point lead for the Maize and Blue could be devastating to Pittsburgh. And unlike Oakland and Lehigh, Michigan has the depth and firepower to maintain and stretch early leads. Dixon knows his team can ill afford another poor start, so pay close attention to the score at around the 10-minute mark tonight.
- Size and Rebounding: In recent years, Pittsburgh would likely focus on winning the rebounding battle as the key to putting Michigan away, but with the added size and depth down low for the Wolverines in the form of Mitch McGary, Jordan Morgan, and Jon Horford, Michigan will need to hang tough and stick with the aggressive Panthers on the glass. Pitt has simply dominated their opponents so far in the rebounding department, particularly on the offensive end, so look for Beilein to perhaps deploy his two-big offense more often than we’ve seen so far. Freshman big man Steven Adams has been solid thus far for Dixon but he hasn’t been the force many projected early on. The battle between him and McGary should be very interesting and will be something to keep an eye on to see whose freshmen are best prepared. Glenn Robinson III and Hardaway, Jr.’s rebounding should help to at least neutralize Pittsburgh’s perceived rebounding advantage; in the end, though, it will likely come down to who is shooting better and holding onto the ball.
Prediction: Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway will be Michigan’s cogs once again on offense and Tray Woodall and Talib Zanna should put up good numbers for Michigan, but the X-factor will be the second and third tier of players for both teams. If one-time Michigan recruit Trey Zeigler shines for Pitt and catches fire, the Panthers will have a balanced attack that will be hard to stop, but if Tre Robinson and Nik Stauskas continue their impressive college debuts, the Wolverines will be hard to stop. I think the rebounding numbers will be pretty even, Michigan will win the turnover battle, and Beilein’s freshmen will make the difference as the Wolverines advance to the NIT Preseason final, 77-65. Hardaway, Jr. and Burke lead the way with 38 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists combined.