After taking home the NIT Season Tip-Off Championship over Thanksgiving last week in New York, the Michigan Wolverines return to Ann Arbor tonight for their much-anticipated ACC/Big Ten Challenge match-up with the North Carolina State Wolfpack. While Mark Gottfried’s team was tripped up in its own preseason tournament by Oklahoma State, they are supremely talented and were projected to win the ACC by the experts before the season started. Tonight’s game at the Crisler Center (7:30pm on ESPN) will be seen by many on national television and headlines the 15th Challenge. Here are a few things to make note of as you watch:
1. Stopping the Stars: Michigan has been extremely impressive thus far, shutting down teams from the likes of Slippery Rock and IUPUI to Pittsburgh and Kansas State last week, and while the latter wins were a little closer, there never seemed to be much doubt as to the outcome of any of the Wolverines’ five victories. That could change tonight, as North Carolina State will certainly be the most talented team to date to challenge Michigan. Mark Gottfried has established a squad that, while not incredibly deep, is extremely talented and very balanced. Junior 6’9″ forward C.J. Leslie was the talk of the ACC coming into the season and is one of six players on the squad to average between 10 and 15 points per game. Leslie’s long, lanky frame makes him an excellent rebounder, as he grabs seven per game, but his 10.8 points per game are a little bit lacking compared to preseason expectations. For the Wolfpack, that hasn’t been a big concern, however, as superstar freshmen Rodney Purvis and T.J. Warren have been spectacular, averaging 10.8 points, three rebounds, and two assists per game and 14.8 points and 3.8 rebounds per game, respectively. Senior Richard Howell has emerged as a big that can rebound (8.4 per game in just 24 minutes) with the best of them and junior Lorenzo Brown is simply filling the stat sheet up with 11.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 2.2 steals per game; his downfall is in turning the ball over 4.4 times per game and in shooting under 35 percent from the field. The problem such a diversified attack poses is in help defense. Michigan will need to play great man-to-man defense with as little help as possible. The 1-3-1 zone will certainly be utilized on occasion, as only two NC State players have attempted more than 10 threes (Purvis and sharpshooter Scott Wood).
2. Packing it in: North Carolina State isn’t the biggest team in the world, starting only two guys 6’8″ or above and rotating in only one more 6’8″ big, but they are strong inside and will attempt a vast majority of their shots as close to the basket as possible. Michigan has been dominant on the glass so far while the Wolfpack have been average, so that shouldn’t be a big problem for the Maize and Blue, but Michigan big men Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGary will need to be careful about not fouling. We saw them both get into major foul trouble against Kansas State, and while Jon Horford presents a spectacular option for a third big, Michigan will want to run with a couple big guys for at least a quarter of the game. The zone should be a big part of the game plan to force the ball around the edges and make it tough to get inside, but Leslie, Purvis, and Brown can all get to the rack. Michigan needs to be sure to play tough inside defense without fouling. The Wolverines also need to be mindful of Purvis and Wood on the outside, as they shoot 58.8 percent and 44.8 percent from downtown, respectively, while being aware that few others pose deep threats.
3. Protecting the Rock: The Wolfpack’s Achilles heel so far this year has been in taking care of the ball. They turn the ball over a whopping 14 times per game, and while they like to run the floor and shoot often, scoring 80 points per game, John Beilein is going to do everything in his power to make this game into a half court battle, where Michigan should thrive. If North Carolina State is careless with the ball early, their struggles of late should continue. They barely inched past a now 1-5 UNC-Asheville team 82-80 because they turned the ball over 19 times. Michigan’s fast break and shooting have simply been too good to give them free possessions and still expect to win. The Wolverines are turning the ball over only 10 times per game. A few extra possessions could go a long way for either team.
Prediction: While this will be the toughest test yet for Michigan, the home crowd should give the Wolverines a solid advantage and will propel them to another double digit victory. Tim Hardaway, Jr. has unstoppable all season and has been cleared to play after a scary collision against Kansas State last Friday. His contributions alongside Trey Burke and freshman revelation Nik Stauskas should be too much for the Wolfpack to handle. Michigan does their part for the Big Ten as the conference takes home a fourth straight victory in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, winning 76-65.