With an abnormally long Christmas break in the rearview mirror, the Michigan Wolverines have returned to practice in preparation for their non-conference finale tonight (7pm on BTN) against Central Michigan. Now sitting at 12-0 on the year, the surging Maize and Blue will look to enter Big Ten season undefeated for the first time in more than two decades. Here are three keys to the game that Michigan will have to focus on to maintain that record:
1. Defend the Floor: John Beilein pointed out in yesterday’s press conference that nearly every team Michigan has faced to date has provided some sort of unique challenge. Eastern Michigan played exclusively in a 2-3 zone defense, Pittsburgh, Kansas State, and West Virginia prided themselves on offensive rebounding, and Bradley provided a glimpse into true road games for this team. The Chippewas’ challenge will be on the offensive end of the floor, where they will often roll out five players that can step behind the three-point line, giving Beilein a taste of his own medicine from his West Virginia days with Kevin Pittsnogle. Michigan’s best shooting opponents so far had maybe three guys that could eye the long ball, so a team like Central will force Michigan to stay honest on defense and not collapse too heavily on drives. In all, eight Chippewas have attempted double-digit three-pointers, five of whom shoot 38 percent or better from distance. The good news for Michigan is that, while Central can shoot threes, they really struggle inside the arc, making only 44.8 percent of their two-point attempts. Beilein will likely have his team key on senior guard and UNC-Greensboro transfer Kyle Randall, who is the only player for coach Keno Davis to average double-digits in the points column, pouring in 15.9 per game in a team-high 31.1 minutes. Alongside Randall, who makes almost 40 percent of his threes, John Simons, Blake Hibbitts, Olivier Mbaigoto, and Spencer Krannitz are the guys to keep an eye on lurking behind the three-point line.
2. Take Advantage of Sloppiness: It’s no big secret these days that Michigan is one of the best fast-break teams in the country. Trey Burke is simply lethal in the open floor, Tim Hardaway, Jr. is no slouch in his own right, and Nik Stauskas provides that kick-out threat that any coach would die to have. This adeptness in the transition game makes opponent turnovers even more critical, and even though Michigan does not play a pressure-heavy style of defense, Beilein wants his team to run whenever they can. Central is just the team to do that against, as the Chips turn the ball over a whopping 14 times per game, led by Randall’s 3.1 giveaways. Central has disgracefully turned the ball over six more times than they have assisted their own baskets this year, and they will almost certainly lose the turnover battle again tonight, as Michigan gives the ball away only 10 times per contest. Look for Michigan to try out the 1-3-1 in spurts to create some easy fast-break opportunities and put Central away early.
3. Focus: It’s been said before and will be said again, but the closer this Michigan team gets to the conference season, the more they need to focus on the task at hand. Beilein does a masterful job of “framing” each game, as he put it, to maintain his players’ focus at a one-game-at-a-time pace. Everyone knows who the better team is in this game, but everyone also knows that in most cases the underdog is the team that puts forth more effort, which contributes to some big upsets in the college game. One of the reasons Michigan has not fallen prey to the upset this year is because of that focus that Beilein instills in his team, and because of how well the team buys into it. Tonight, Beilein and his fellow assistants will harp on the importance of finishing the non-conference season with a donut in the loss column and beating Michigan’s fourth and final in-state directional opponent. Obviously Central Michigan is not viewed as Michigan’s rival, but don’t tell that to their fans in Mount Pleasant. The Chippewas will give everything they have to try to relive the last time these two teams met on the hardwood in Ann Arbor, when Central handed Michigan a 78-67 loss in Beilein’s first season leading the Wolverines. Try as they might, however, this game will likely see a much different outcome.
Prediction: With less than a week until Michigan begins Big Ten play in Evanston, the Wolverines should have no trouble dispatching their final non-conference opponent. Central simply does not have the players to match up with Beilein’s talent, and by halftime the game will be well in hand. Michigan rolls behind Trey Burke and the gang, 84-50.