After taking down two high-major teams in the NIT Preseason Tip-Off and beating a nationally-ranked NC State team at home this past Tuesday, Michigan makes the trip to Peoria, Illinois today to take on Missouri Valley-afterthought Bradley today (4pm on ESPNU). The Braves stumbled to a 7-25 record last season, including a miserable 2-16 in-conference record, but Bradley has gotten off to a good start this year, standing at 5-1 with a single blemish coming at South Florida. This game looks unfair from every angle, but pay attention to these three things as you watch today:
- Hostile Environment: Michigan has only played two games this season away from the friendly confines of the renovated Crisler Center, both of which were on a neutral court in New York, where a majority of the crowd seemed to be cheering on the Wolverines. That will not be the case today. In college basketball, home court is king, and the Braves will have that advantage today. Over the past two seasons, nearly half of Michigan’s losses have been true road games, and many more came away from Crisler. Bradley has drawn more than 6,600 fans to two of its three home games this year, and today’s game is certain to pack the house at Carver Arena. How Michigan reacts to the environment will be a key to the game. Pay extra attention to the freshmen play for Michigan. Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III, and Nik Stauskas have been critical to the team’s success early on, but if they are rattled by the crowd, Michigan could be in for a dogfight. Today’s game is the only away game for Michigan until the conference season begins in January, making it all the more important.
- Re-match: Today’s game is actually the second game of a home-and-home scheduled against Bradley. It is obviously very uncommon for a team of Michigan’s caliber to play on the road against a lowly mid-major like Bradley, but John Beilein had the series scheduled to thank Bradley and coach Geno Ford for hiring his son, Patrick Beilein, as the Braves’ Director of Basketball Operations last year. The younger Beilein has now moved on to take a head coaching position with West Virginia Wesleyan, a Division II school, but the game must go on. In last season’s match-up at Michigan, Bradley gave the Wolverines quite a scare. The game was tied at halftime and not really decided until Michigan started to pull away mid-way through the second half. Former Wolverine Evan Smotrycz led the team that night with 20 points and 10 rebounds; he is obviously no longer around, so someone will have to pick up the slack. Bradley returns four of the five starters and five of their six point-scorers from that night and will certainly be poised to give Michigan another run for its money after letting last year’s game slip away. The Wolverines are expected to roll, but this has all the markings of a trap game – focus will be key.
- Shooting: Defense is stressed by every coach in the country, and rightfully so, but shooting is just as important. A terrific shot beats terrific defense every single time, and Michigan has had its fair share of terrific shots already this year. The biggest advantage Michigan will have in this game is its incredible shooting to date, particularly from three-point land. The Wolverines make 42.7 percent of their threes and 52.9 percent of their twos while Bradley makes only 26.4 percent of their threes and 47.1 percent of their twos. And while Beilein’s team has attempted many more shots from inside the arc this season with its added athleticism, the Wolverines may be taking a few more looks from downtown if Bradley resorts to the zone defense that it played frequently in last year’s game. Bradley will obviously have to shoot much better today if they are to have any chance, but Michigan’s interior size and defense should give it a nice advantage in the shooting department.
Prediction: John Beilein has been very good with keeping his team focused throughout his tenure in Ann Arbor, and today will be another test in that department. There aren’t a lot of big games coming up until Big Ten season begins, so Michigan shouldn’t have too many problems looking ahead, but they will need to make sure they don’t get passive and lazy, as these mid-major teams have been circling Michigan on the schedule since the beginning of the season. Bradley might keep it close for 10 minutes or so with a rowdy crowd and plenty of energy, but I don’t expect Michigan to have much trouble after that. Bradley’s seven-man rotation will be worn down by Michigan’s speed as the Wolverines cruise, 80-63, behind 22 from Trey Burke and 10 rebounds from Jordan Morgan.