Sitting at 7-0 with their only non-conference road game now behind them, the Michigan Wolverines travel back to Ann Arbor to welcome in-state Western Michigan University to the Crisler Center tonight (8:30pm on BTN). Michigan is starting to get love from across the country, but the Broncos of the MAC continue to fly under the radar despite reeling off six straight victories, including a big 58-53 win at South Florida. Obviously Michigan is expected to win big once again, but Western is certain to put up their best fight under the bright lights. Here are a few things to pay attention to in tonight’s match-up:
1. Stopping Hutcheson and Ball: Western Michigan’s two biggest wins to date have been a 76-72 tilt over Oakland and a 58-53 victory at South Florida, giving them two solid non-conference Ws on the board already. In those two nail-biters, senior 6’7″ forward Nate Hutcheson and 6’8″ freshman forward Darius Paul combined for 25 points and 14 rebounds. In Western’s season-opening 63-55 loss to Cornell, however, the inside-outside duo went for just 17 points and seven rebounds together. Stopping these two on offense will be the difference between a potentially close game on Michigan’s home court and another mid-major blowout.
2. Size: We all already know about Michigan’s added size and depth down low this year, with four guys 6’8″ and above having seen significant minutes, giving them enough girth down low to compete with just about anyone. Western Michigan, however, actually boasts a much bigger starting line-up, running out a 3-4-5 front court that stands 6’7″ (Hutcheson), 6’8″ (Paul), and 6’10” (junior center Shayne Whittington). Whittington and Paul will barely shoot the ball from deep, doing the majority of their work down low, but Hutcheson takes nearly half of his shots from long range and makes a third of them. Whittington, the starting center, weighs only 220 pounds but is a man in all big man categories, averaging 9.9 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks in just 25.1 minutes per game while shooting 45.5 percent from the field. Jordan Morgan, Mitch McGary, Max Bielfeldt, and Jon Horford will have to be on their games to prevent another easy inside-shooting night for the opponent.
3. Lackadaisical Play: Michigan seemingly continues to play hard night in and night out, and Beilein is a master of putting the pressure on his own team, but at some point one would think that Michigan may get lazy for a game or two. If that were to happen, tonight would be an easy day to do it. Western Michigan is not a historically significant team and Michigan is coming off wins over Pittsburgh, Kansas State, North Carolina State, and at Bradley, a pretty solid stretch of match-ups that keeps them comfortably in the top five in the country. Western, however, can play some basketball, and a lazy Wolverine squad might be all it takes to threaten an upset. If the Broncos needed any more motivation against a top-five team, what more could they ask for then to play the big dogs in their own state, a team that passed over just about every player on their roster? I think Beilein and the veteran leaders will have Michigan ready, but it’s certainly something to keep an eye on.
Prediction: Western should put up a good fight for one half or so, but Michigan’s speed and fast break will ultimately do them in. The Wolverines’ rebounding has been too good for the Broncos to challenge in that category and Trey Burke is one of the best players in the country. Look for Tim Hardaway, Jr. to bounce back after a little bump in the road at Bradley. Michigan wins it, 72-55.