|Michigan (6-3) at #3 Arizona (8-0)
Saturday, Dec. 13 | Tucson, Ariz. | 5:15 p.m. EST | ESPN
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|Caris LeVert (18.6), Zak Irvin (16.1)
||Stanley Johnson (13.8), Hollis-Jefferson (12.7)
|Caris LeVert (5.6), Derrick Walton Jr (4.7)
||Hollis-Jefferson (6.7), Stanley Johnson (6.4)
A college basketball season is often likened to a roller coaster ride. There’s plenty of ups, plenty of downs, lots of twisting and turning, and sometimes sick stomachs. If Michigan’s season is anything like Millennium Force, the Wolverines are nearly touching the sidewalk. Just one week ago, Michigan welcomed the New Jersey Institute of Technology to Ann Arbor, only to be stunned by the team matching up with a top-25 squad for the first time ever. A few days later, the Wolverines looked to bounce back against Washtenaw county co-habitants Eastern Michigan, but again left the home crowd in a state of shock after what can only be described as a rancid offensive performance.
Today, the going gets a lot tougher, as the Maize and Blue face their first true road test against the third-ranked Arizona Wildcats (5:15pm, ESPN). Michigan is already at the bottom of the hill, but a third straight loss could see the cart begin to rattle off the rails. A win, of course, would do wonders for the young squad trying to figure it all out. Here are my three thoughts on today’s battle.
1. Battle at the 4: If Michigan is to have any hope today against Arizona’s stacked roster, they are going to need something out of the four spot. For my money, the Wildcats’ 6’7″, 220-pound Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is one of the most fearsome college players in the country, and though he doesn’t even start for Sean Miller, he is an absolute wrecking ball, averaging 12.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 1.1 blocks in 26.4 minutes per game. The sophomore can jump out of the gym, drive to the rim with no concern for safety, and crash the glass with an intensity rarely seen on the basketball court. To make matters worse, the four has been Michigan’s biggest cause for concern in what has been a shaky start to the year.
True freshman Kameron Chatman, who most thought was destined to play at Arizona before he surprisingly committed to Michigan last fall, is a talented player, but has a long way to go before fully grasping John Beilein’s offensive and defensive concepts. Chatman has been beat far too often on off-ball defense, has looked lost at times offensively, and appears to be struggling with his confidence. In Tuesday’s loss to EMU, Chatman made a nice move to drive baseline and would have had an easy layup or dunk with one more dribble, but instead decided to skip pass over to Spike Albrecht behind the three-point line, resulting in yet another empty possession for the Wolverines. When Chatman has been off, Albrecht has come in to give Michigan a smaller but more veteran two-point lineup.
Today, I’m not sure how feasible that will be with Arizona’s size. In addition to Hollis-Jefferson, the Wildcats also run out 6’7″, 245-pound super freshman Stanley Johnson, 6’9″, 230-pound Michigan wrecker Brandon Ashley, and 7’0″, 245-pound behemoth Kaleb Tarczewski. A Michigan lineup featuring both Albrecht and Walton, who are each dealing with injuries, could see one of them giving up six inches and 50 pounds if Miller takes advantage with substitutions of his own. Today, Chatman needs to grow up a little bit and focus on defense, box out, and play with confidence.
2. Mix it Up: This piece of advice goes for both ends of the court today for the visiting Wolverines. Against Eastern Michigan, Michigan was baffled offensively against the 2-3 zone for almost the entire 40 minutes, and only managed 42 points on 43 shots. Of those 43 shots, only a handful were good looks around the basket, and nearly half of them came from long range, where Caris LeVert and Zak Irvin combined to make all four of Michigan’s triples. I can guarantee that if Michigan only makes 19 percent of their threes again today, it is going to be an ugly loss. Arizona will not play much zone, but Michigan still needs to vary their offense and look for a variety of shots. Whether that means working the back door, focusing more on the pick-and-roll, or even trying to mix in some pick-and-pop with Mark Donnal, the Wolverines need to keep the Wildcats honest to open up the looks both inside and outside. Look for Beilein to draw up a couple plays from the get-go to try to get some open looks from downtown for LeVert, Irvin, and Walton. If they knock them down, the confidence should rise and Michigan will have a fighter’s chance.
Defensively, the Wolverines could also stand to throw some different looks at Arizona. NJIT’s offense ripped through Michigan’s porous defense to the tune of 72 points on 64.7 percent shooting from deep and 55.2 percent from inside the arc. Arizona’s size and strength down low has the potential to destroy Michigan’s inexperienced centers and wings defensively, and if the Wolverines play uninspired man defense again, they will wish they had never gotten on the plane to Arizona in the first place. In last year’s thrilling home loss to Arizona, Michigan was torn apart by Ashley, Tarczewski, and future NBA Lottery pick Aaron Gordon down low, allowing them to combine for 46 points on 57 percent shooting inside the three-point line and 20 rebounds. Today, look for Michigan to double down on all of Arizona’s big men while also mixing in some 1-3-1 on occasion to give the Wildcats a little to think about.
3. Dominate the Easy Points: Points are hard to come by, especially when facing a team like Arizona that has the size, athleticism, and savvy to shut down anyone. Beilein’s Michigan teams, on the other end, have been the best scoring team in the country for two years running, but it looks like early attrition to the NBA has finally started to show for the Maize and Blue. Michigan has gone through some long scoring droughts against Villanova, NJIT, and Eastern Michigan already this year, and a few minutes with doughnuts on the scoreboard against Arizona will spell doom. The Wolverines really need to put their heart and soul into each possession on both sides of the floor, but will especially have to take advantage of every “easy points” situation. For me, easy points include free throws and fast breaks. The Wolverines need to make their free throws and win the battle at the charity stripe, and can absolutely not afford to leave points on the table when presented with an odd-man fast break situation off turnovers.
Prediction: As evidenced by these three keys, Michigan will need to do a lot right and hope Arizona does a lot wrong to come out with a head-turning win. The Wolverines need to hit shots, play with intensity on defense, and act like they are competitors on the big stage. Unfortunately, I think Arizona’s size down low and experience at the guard spots will be too much to handle for the visitors, but it will be closer than many expect. I like the Wildcats today, 68-63.