After seven-and-a-half long months of waiting, the Michigan basketball season finally begins tonight as the Wolverines welcome the Rockets of Division II Slippery Rock to the newly-renovated Crisler Center. Because Slippery Rock is not in Division I, this game will technically not count in Michigan’s RPI or Strength of Schedule calculations at the end of the season, but anything less than a blowout win would be cause for concern for the fifth-ranked team in the country. It is simply imperative that John Beilein’s team gets off to a fast start this year if the program expects to compete in the Big Ten. With that in mind, here are a few things to pay special attention to in the season opener:
- Jon Horford: The redshirt sophomore big man should be good to go after Beilein said that he expected him to be “full-go” for tonight earlier this week, but Horford’s past injury problems are cause for concern. A healthy Horford is a trendy pick to break out in the Big Ten, but an injured Horford sitting on the bench won’t do much to help in the blocks and rebounds departments like he is capable of doing. Expect to see Horford play about 10-15 minutes based on how he is feeling and look for him to record at least two blocks in that time.
- Big-man rotation: This point goes hand-in-hand with Horford’s status, but also deserves special mention because of Michigan’s added size and depth down low. Horford’s addition should mean more two-big lineups, but if that is not working out for whatever reason, one of Jordan Morgan, Mitch McGary, and Horford will have their minutes severely limited. Expect Morgan to start while McGary and Horford should follow closely off the bench to replace the four and five at times.
- Starting Lineup and Rotation: Simply put, John Beilein has never had so much depth at every position in his career. This Michigan team has the talent and the personnel to comfortably go two-deep at every position, but as we’ve seen in the past, Beilein generally likes to keep his rotation under 10 players. I expect nine guys to get significant burn on the court (eight-plus minutes per game), but that still means that a handful of players will be fighting for few minutes. Beilein will likely stick with his starting lineup of Burke-Hardaway, Jr.-Vogrich-Robinson III-Morgan from the Saginaw Valley State game, but the substitutions will be very interesting. It seems to me that Nik Stauskas will come in to replace Vogrich (or Hardaway in the case of foul trouble) early on with McGary checking in for either Robinson III or Morgan as Beilein sees fit. Spike Albrecht will see spot minutes while Burke rests and Horford will find a spot in the big-man rotation, but just how much everyone plays will be very interesting early on as Beilein finds the right combinations and starts to substitute the same guys consistently.
- Style of Play: Everyone knows that John Beilein’s preferred lineup is four guards or wings and one big man so that the floor can be spread and his shooters can get open shots. With more size and talent down low this season, however, Beilein has openly stated that he will be working with different lineups and different styles of play throughout the year, probably depending on how his players work together and how the styles work against individual teams. A bigger lineup would potentially mean more emphasis on offensive rebounding, interior defense, and inside scoring while a smaller lineup would signal spreading the floor, getting back on defense, pushing the fast break, and shooting a lot. Make no mistake about it, however: no matter who is on the floor, Michigan is still going to shoot a lot of threes, send at least two guys back after a shot to eliminate fast breaks, and protect the basketball on offense, all staples of Beilein teams. When all is said and done I think we will see almost equal minutes of Glenn Robinson III and a big man at the four position, but it will be interesting to see when, why, and how often Beilein switches up the style throughout the year.