Entering this 2012-13 college basketball season, Michigan and Indiana were almost universally considered to be top-five teams in the country. They have yet to disappoint. With just three losses between them, the Wolverines and Hoosiers look like not only the class of the conference, but also contenders on the national stage.
Tonight (9pm on ESPN), a game that has been circled on both teams’ schedules since they came out finally arrives. The one-loss Wolverines, led by All-American point guard Trey Burke and a trio of double-digit scoring sidekicks, make the trip to Bloomington in what is sure to be one of the loudest games in the history of college basketball to face off against the two-loss Hoosiers, led by All-American center Cody Zeller and surprise player of the year Victor Oladipo. Here are three keys to the game for Michigan:
1. Limit the Scoring Bursts: The quintessential strength of both of these teams is no secret – they both score points seemingly at will and have been simply rolling through the majority of their schedules. Michigan and Indiana combine to average 162 points and shoot 51 percent and 50 percent, respectively, from the field. They also both shoot better than 40 percent from downtown as a team and boast five players apiece that knock down threes on more than 37 percent of their attempts. Points will be had.
Neither of these teams is particularly bad on defense, both ranking in the top 60 or so in defensive efficiency, but I don’t foresee this being a defensive struggle by any means. When points are being scored so often, however, runs are bound to happen at some point. The number one key for Michigan in this game will be to limit Indiana’s outbursts on offense. If the Hoosiers are consistently reeling off runs of six to eight points, Michigan is in serious trouble. The crowd could play a huge factor in this game, and especially so if Indiana can get a little distance early on.
The Wolverines were able to fight back from a 20-plus point deficit at Ohio State a couple weeks back before falling apart at the end; that will not be the case tonight. A double-digit lead in the first half for Indiana spells doom for the Maize and Blue. One way to prevent this from happening is to limit turnovers, which Michigan has done admirably well, turning it over only nine times per game and only twice in their win over Northwestern on Wednesday. Oladipo is a dynamic and athletic defender averaging 2.5 steals a night that will get his hands in passing lanes in the hopes of having one or two of those game-changing fast-break dunks. The Wolverines need to be cognizant of his location at all times and make smart passes. A bad shot or even a shot clock violation are much better outcomes than handing two points the other way.
2. Take Advantage of Individual Matchups: Usually this would be a key for Indiana, who possess a 6’9″ power forward making nearly 48 percent of his shots from downtown in Christian Watford and a center who runs the floor and gets to the line at an outstanding rate in Zeller, but Michigan actually might pose the greater matchup problems for the Hoosiers with their backcourt. Glenn Robinson III will be at a decent height disadvantage against Watford, but he is used to playing on the perimeter and he has the quickness and athleticism to stick with him.
Jon Horford and Mitch McGary will likely be tasked with holding down Zeller as Jordan Morgan seems doubtful for tonight, and certainly Zeller is an outstanding college player, but those two bigs have the strength and size to at least match up with him; so long as they stay out of foul trouble, Horford and McGary should be okay on defense.
In the backcourt, it’s going to be Tom Crean who looks to have some problems on his hands. Yogi Ferrell, Jordan Hulls, and Oladipo go 6’0″ (more like 5’10”), 6’0″ (probably closer to 5’11”), and 6’5″ at the guard spots for the Cream and Crimson. Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway, Jr., and Nik Stauskas go 6’0″, 6’6″, and 6’6″ for Michigan. Furthermore, Jordan Hulls notably struggles guarding quicker and more athletic guards, of which you won’t find many better than Burke. Some pundits question whether Crean will put Oladipo, his best one-on-one cover man, on Burke to try to cut the head off the beast, but that would leave two sub-6’0″ers trying to guard two 6’6″ers that shoot better than 40 percent from downtown. The more likely scenario in my opinion is Ferrell guarding Burke, Oladipo on Hardaway, and Hulls on Stauskas, which means Michigan’s freshman sharpshooter will be called upon to shoulder a decent portion of the scoring load. If Stauskas is able to shoot over Hulls or drive by him, he might force Crean’s hand to limit Hulls’ minutes, which would be huge for Michigan, as the former Indiana Mr. Basketball shoots 48.1 percent from behind the arc.
3. Embrace the Spotlight: Every college basketball fan is watching this game tonight, and everyone at Assembly Hall tonight knows that. Last year, Indiana took down previously-unbeaten Kentucky at home in a thriller, and the Hoosiers will be looking to do the same tonight. The young Michigan squad needs to embrace the target on their backs, embrace the challenge of beating a great team on the road, and embrace the spotlight of this game.
Against Ohio State, a few Wolverines appeared a little shell-shocked when they fell behind early, and by the time the comeback was on, their energy was drained. Tonight, Stauskas, Hardaway, Jr., and the rest of the team need to play their games within the offense and trust that what the coaches have told them leading up to this game will work. If the Wolverines start forcing shots instead of using the shot clock, they will be dead in the water. Michigan needs to use their lethal fast-break to get some easy buckets and to quiet the crowd while also taking smart shots and making smart passes throughout the night. Easier said than done.
Prediction: This is one of those games where it’s tough to see either team running away with it. A double-digit lead would be huge for either team, but particularly for Indiana. Michigan will use the knowledge gained at Ohio State and at Minnesota to try to stay in the game early, survive a possible onslaught, and perhaps pull away late, retaining the top ranking in the country. But Indiana will do everything in their power to feed off the crowd throughout the night and shoot the lights out. This is the first time all season I have very little idea of what the outcome will be, but because I am forced to make a pick, I have to take Indiana 82-80.