Now more than a month into the season, the preseason top-five Michigan Wolverines have yet to fall and find themselves ranked No. 3 overall in the country with an 8-0 record. There have been a couple tests on the way to their unblemished record, but there is yet to be a team to provide an extreme challenge. Tomorrow, Michigan will welcome the SEC’s Arkansas Razorbacks to Ann Arbor (12pm on CBS) and look to get revenge over one of the three teams from last year’s non-conference season to hand them a loss. The Razorbacks have gotten off to a mediocre 4-3 start so far, but their fast-paced “40 Minutes of Hell” style of play gave Michigan some fits a year ago and they will certainly be looking to turn some heads against a top-notch team. Here are a few keys to the outcome of tomorrow’s game:
- 1. Stop B.J. Young: Arkansas sophomore B.J. Young was one of the nation’s best freshmen last year after leading all SEC freshmen in scoring and leading his own team in scoring and shooting percentage. Now a preseason 3rd Team All-American selection, Young has come out of the gates like a man on a mission, putting up a remarkable line of 19.5 points, 4 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and only 1 turnover in only 29.2 minutes per game while shooting 45 percent from the field. In last year’s 66-64 win over Michigan, Young gave the Wolverines trouble all game long, putting up 15 points, four rebounds, three assists, and two steals while shooting 6-10 from the field. What’s perhaps scariest about facing the sensational sophomore, however, is how he rises to the occasion in big games. Last season, Young averaged 20 points and 3.5 rebounds per game while shooting 52.4 percent from the field against ranked teams and has only improved on that aspect of his game, averaging 21.5 points, 5 rebounds, and 1.5 assists per game against Wisconsin and Syracuse this year, the only two teams Arkansas has played this season that have been ranked in the top 25. Tim Hardaway, Jr. will likely spend the majority of tomorrow’s game spotting Young on defense, where he would be wise to stop the drive at all costs and force Young into shooting the ball. The 6’3″ guard is only shooting 14.3 percent from downtown this year after making 41.3 percent of his long-rangers last year.
- 2. Protecting the Rock: Current Arkansas coach Mike Anderson adopted old Razorback coach Nolan Richardson’s 40 Minutes of Hell style in which the Hogs apply full-court ball pressure 100 percent of the time in an attempt to rattle the other team and force as many turnovers as possible. Michigan only turned the ball over 10 times in last year’s loss, but the heavy pressure clearly brought the Wolverines out of their comfort zone and forced them into a very poor shooting day. As is well-documented, however, the Wolverines are even younger this season and will play five different freshmen in the game tomorrow, a concerning fact for coach John Beilein. The play of backup point guard Spike Albrecht will be of particular interest to me. Trey Burke will obviously again see the lion’s share of minutes at the one, but when Albrecht spells him for five minutes or so, he will need to remain poised and work the ball up the floor by making smart passes; he simply doesn’t possess the quickness or handles of Burke yet to become a one-man press break. There is simply no denying Arkansas’s effectiveness when forcing turnovers, though. In their four wins so far, the Razorbacks have turned the other team over an average of 21.3 times per game, but they have only collected 14 cough-ups per game in their three losses. The numbers can be taken with a grain of salt due to the competition level of the wins and the losses, but the trend is clear. Michigan will have to move the ball around effectively and quickly to find the open man. Nik Stauskas could devastate this style of defense if the Wolverines do what they are supposed to.
- 3. Controlling the Game: This point goes hand-in-hand with the previous one, but there’s something to be said about the pace at which Arkansas will want to play tomorrow. Michigan generally plays the game very methodically, looking for the best possible shot in a possession and rarely firing away fewer than 10-15 seconds in the shot clock unless there is a fast break opportunity. Arkansas, on the other hand, will look to run quite often regardless of how open the court may be and will want to turn the game into a high-possession horse race. If the Wolverines are able to control the game like usual and pick their own spots while slowing the Razorback attack they shouldn’t have much trouble putting Arkansas away, but if they get out of whack like they did last year, it will be close. It took Michigan about one whole half to figure out Arkansas’s pressure a season ago, and by that time, the 13-point deficit was too large to overcome. A strong but relaxed start for Michigan should give them the upper hand throughout.
Prediction: Last year, Arkansas’s win was largely the result of a tough spot in the middle of the Big Ten schedule, a rowdy environment, and a hot shooting night. The Razorbacks should have none of those this time around barring an unforeseen offensive outburst (they shoot just 44.2% from the field and 28.8% from downtown), which leads me to believe that Michigan’s far superior talent should have no problem running away with this game, 80-65.