As the end-of-year holidays approach and days come to a close earlier and earlier, the smell of Big Ten basketball is in the air. For Michigan, the conference season means a chance to defend their share of last year’s Big Ten title and a shot to prove that their sensational non-conference play has been no fluke. Christmas and New Year’s Day must pass before that happens, however, and the Wolverines still have two more games against non-Big Ten (but in-state) opponents before they can claim a flawless non-conference slate. The first of these two matchups comes tonight (8:30pm on Big Ten Network) as the 6-3 Eagles of Ypsilanti make the short drive to the Crisler Center with upsets on their minds. Let’s take a quick look at what Michigan fans should watch for:
- Stay Focused: After taking down West Virginia at the new Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, Michigan will not face another high-major opponent until the Big Ten season begins in January. So far, the Wolverines have downed Pittsburgh, Kansas State, North Carolina State, Arkansas, and West Virginia with relative ease on their way to an 11-0 record to date, their best since winning the national championship in 1989. Eastern Michigan is clearly not even close to the level of any of these teams despite the fact that the Razorbacks and the Mountaineers have struggled through much of the season to date, and this game is not one that will draw many national viewers. Furthermore, the Wolverines are in the middle of exams and the majority of the Maize Rage will be out on break. In essence, there will not be a ton of energy in the building, and if Michigan becomes lackadaisical, Eastern will jump at the chance to make it an interesting matchup. In reality, the Eagles are probably not good enough to deem this a potential trap game, but any Division I team has enough talent to at least keep it close. Michigan needs to stay focused on the task at hand and simply take care of business in this one.
- Play Solid Defense: If there has been one area that Michigan could noticeably improve upon this year, it is on the defensive end of the court. Opposing teams have gotten a few too many easy looks at times throughout the non-conference season, and while Michigan has played solid defense at other times and perhaps some teams have played up to Michigan’s level, the gimme baskets will be the difference in one or two Big Ten games if they persist. Jon Horford’s injury certainly won’t help in this category at all, which is all the more reason the rest of the team needs to pick up the slack and make every possession for the other team a difficult trip. With the way Eastern Michigan has struggled to shoot the ball this year, making just 38.7 percent of their field goals and 28 percent of their threes, there is no better game than this to work on defense and get some confidence heading into conference play.
- Get Rested: John Beilein would love to blow out every team Michigan ever plays, but that is not realistic, and everyone knows it. A blowout in a game like this, however, is something that is both very possible for Michigan and very desirable before Big Ten play. Eastern Michigan ranks worse than 300th in the country in field goal percentage, assists per game, and points per game. They are not good. Michigan, on the other hand, is very good, ranking in the top five in the country in shooting percentage and top 50 in points per game and defensive rebounding percentage. Every year it seems that Michigan enters the year claiming added depth and every year it seems that Beilein shortens his bench significantly within a few games, doling out a high percentage of minutes to few players. This season has been no different. Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway, Jr., and Glenn Robinson III all play more than 30 minutes per game, and Nik Stauskas averages 29.5 minutes in his own right. Beyond those four, only two other guys play double digit minutes, big men Jordan Morgan (21.8 minutes per game) and Mitch McGary (14.3 mpg). Perhaps most disturbing about these numbers is that two of those guys averaging big-time minutes are freshmen that have yet to experience the grind of a Big Ten season and all four of the leading minute users are expected to be the Wolverines’ best shooters. These guys need to rest their legs to stay fresh heading into the rough and tough conference season. Michigan will continue to be targeted by every team in the conference season, and going on the road in the Big Ten will not be easy. The young Wolverines can use all the rest they can get right now before those legs are needed to rain more threes starting in a couple weeks. Look for the starters to play no more than 25 minutes tonight and pay close attention to the big man rotation. An injured Horford will likely lead to an opening for Max Bielfeldt to get increased run.
Prediction: Michigan should have no trouble rolling their neighbors as they warm up for the Big Ten. Wolverines win 81-52 in a coast-to-coast victory.