Last week Michigan had perhaps its two toughest games of the season within a five-day period when the Wolverines traveled to both Columbus and Minneapolis to take on top-15 Ohio State and Minnesota on the road. They came out of the brutality with a respectable 1-1 mark after avenging the Sunday loss to the Buckeyes with an impressive 83-75 win over the Golden Gophers.
Now, they look to carry that momentum into tonight’s game against the struggling Boilermakers of Purdue before entering another very difficult stretch in the Big Ten season. Still without a signature loss on the resume, Purdue will come out tonight with their best effort to take down the team everyone seems to be talking about. If Michigan gets through this game and a Sunday battle in Champaign, Ill. unscathed, the Wolverines will likely be rewarded with the top ranking in the country, but a loss tonight would again hold them back. Here are three keys to the game:
1. Make Purdue Shoot: There is really no secret as to why Purdue has struggled thus far in the 2012-13 season and has lost to the likes of Bucknell, Villanova, Xavier, and Eastern Michigan: they can’t shoot the basketball. Senior D.J. Byrd has taken nearly half of Purdue’s threes and makes them at a decent clip (36.5%), but there are very few others on Matt Painter’s roster that provide a consistent deep threat. Of the players who see more than 10 minutes of court time per game, Raphael Davis makes the highest percentage of his bombs at 38.5 percent, but he has only taken 13 shots from behind the arc, and junior Terone Johnson has improved his stroke this year, but his 35.2 percent rate from three is unimpressive.
None of the six other Boilermakers who play significant minutes make even one quarter of their deep looks, and half of those guys have yet to attempt a trey all season. Michigan continues to struggle at times defending the long ball, most recently letting Minnesota nail half of their 16 three-point attempts, but they would be well-advised in this game to dare Purdue to beat them with shots they are uncomfortable taking. Obviously, it would be unwise to leave Byrd open or anybody else wide open on a consistent basis, but Michigan can and should bait Purdue into taking contested three-point looks as opposed to contested looks in the paint, where they are likely to execute better.
2. Play Aggressive Defense: One of the hotly-debated topics in college basketball these days, particularly for Michigan fans, is the strategy involved in teams that foul frequently versus teams that foul infrequently. The Wolverines are in the latter category, putting their opponents on the line fewer times per 40 minutes than any other team in the country, and John Beilein likes it that way. But many argue that Michigan can afford to play tougher defense, even though it may result in more fouls, as long as it also improves their aggressiveness on the defensive end and causes teams to shoot a low enough percentage to make it make sense. The time to try this might never be better than tonight.
Leaving Purdue off the free throw line will not avoid much damage, as the Boilermakers only make 63 percent of their attempts from the charity stripe as a team, but it could lead to more open looks and easy layups. Terone Johnson, A.J. Hammons, and Ronnie Johnson (Terone’s brother) will rarely beat anyone from long range or from the free throw line (60.1% combined), but they can make layups. Terone Johnson destroyed Michigan on Senior Day in Ann Arbor last year, spoiling the Wolverines’ undefeated home record, by lowering his shoulder and driving hard to the hoop en route to 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting from the field (0-for-1 from downtown). Michigan needs to make sure they are playing strong, aggressive team defense to close all driving lanes on players like Johnson to make Purdue work hard for any basket or shot they get.
3.Get Stauskas Involved: Michigan has all the makings of a team that can make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament in March – an All-American point guard, a cold-blooded veteran scorer, a variety of options down low, a superb athlete that finishes everything around the hoop, and a dead-eye shooter – but for that dream run to become a reality, Michigan will need every part clicking. Trey Burke has been about as consistent as it gets and Tim Hardaway, Jr. played tremendously in the win at Minnesota, but freshman Nik Stauskas has been regressing slightly in conference play.
Earlier in the season, the Canadian sniper was making nearly two-thirds of his three-point looks and surprised the crowd more when he missed a deep bomb than when he made one. His swagger was off the charts and he mentioned a couple time how he could not wait to play in the hostile road environments in the Big Ten. Last week, however, Stauskas went scoreless against Ohio State and put up 11 on Minnesota, combining to go 1-of-7 from deep, showing that he still has a ways to go before becoming a bona fide scorer.
He will continue to be an integral part of this team’s season, though, and Michigan would be wise to get him as many open looks as possible tonight to get his confidence back on track and his shooting percentage a couple points up. The two games last week ended a 12-game streak in which Stauskas drained multiple threes every night out, and the donut marked the first time since early November that he failed to score double-digits. Nik has already shown that he is much more than a one-dimensional shooter and can produce even when his shot is slightly off, but his best asset is still that deadly stroke that can be such a game-changer in close battles. Watch for Beilein to draw up a couple of set plays to get Stauskas open looks and look for him to lead the team in scoring with around 18 points.
Prediction: Purdue has won three straight games against lesser talent and will be looking for a signature, resume-making win tonight in Ann Arbor, but the Boilermakers simply do not have the talent or the shooting to get the job done. Michigan should put the game away by halftime and roll after that behind a strong performance from Stauskas and a double-double from Mitch McGary. Wolverines move to 18-1 with an 82-58 win.