Your Xavier Musketeers take on the Michigan Wolverines tonight in beautiful Michigan. To get you ready for the game we talked to Drew Hallett over at Maize N Brew to tell us a little bit more about the Wolverines. Drew was kind enough to take the time to break down this Michigan team for us, so give him a huge thanks ahead of tonight's clash. Let's see what he had to say.
1.) Michigan is #24 in the AP poll and 2-0. What are your expectations for this season?
My expectations are similar to what they were for last season's team: a top-four Big Ten finish and run to the Sweet 16.
Of course, Michigan didn't come close to satisfying those expectations thanks to injuries. Derrick Walton sprained his toe in the fifth game against Villanova, which robbed him of his explosiveness and athleticism until it was decided in late January that he needed to rest and miss the remainder of the season. When Walton first hurt his toe, much of the offensive burden was placed onto Caris LeVert, and it was too much to bear. Michigan began to struggle, and any chance of making a late push for the NCAA Tournament evaporated when LeVert fractured his foot in mid-January. The Wolverines lost seven times in an eight-game stretch and finished the season with a 16-16 record.
However, I'm maintaining my expectations for a few different reasons. First, Michigan performed very well in those first few weeks before Walton's injury. Second, the entire roster from last season's team -- except Max Bielfeldt, who transferred to Indiana -- is back. Plus, the Wolverines have added some nice weapons in sharpshooter and D-III transfer Duncan Robinson and two athletic big men in D.J. Wilson and Moritz Wagner. Third, for the most part, the team is healthy. LeVert and Walton have looked like their former selves in the first two weeks, but Zak Irvin (back), who made his debut on Monday against Elon, and Spike Albrecht (hips) still aren't quite at full strength after going under the knife in the offseason. However, they should be 100 percent soon. And, fourth, when LeVert and Walton went out last season, players were forced to step up, and, by the end of the season, we saw substantial improvement from Irvin, Albrecht, and unheralded freshman Aubrey Dawkins. For the first time in awhile, the Wolverines have depth at the guards and wings, and that'll carry them a long way.
2.) Who do the Musketeers need to be watching out for on Friday night?
Caris LeVert, for starters. He is Michigan's most consistent, versatile player and someone that will put up 15 points, five boards, five assists, and two steals a night. Offensively, LeVert is a great catch-and-shoot scorer, and he is able to create offense for himself and others. He's at his best when he's able to take a big dribble into the paint, force the defense to collapse, and kick it out to an open shooter on the perimeter. However, when he faces bigger defenses, he lacks the explosion to take that final step and attack at the rim, which leaves him to toss up floaters and pull-up jumpers, which are not his specialty. Defensively, LeVert has tremendous length, but he has yet to become the lockdown defender many hoped he would be. But that doesn't stop him from getting into passing lanes and generating steals. He had six in the first two games. Despite some of the faults that I have listed, LeVert is an extremely talented player and a projected first-round pick for a reason.
Another Wolverine to watch is Derrick Walton. He is Michigan's starting point guard and, with Zak Irvin still not 100 percent, clearly Michigan's second-best player. Many thought a breakout sophomore campaign was in store for Walton last season, and, after the first four games, during which he averaged 14.8 PPG with a 60.0 eFG%, 5.5 RPG, and 2.8 APG, he seemed to be well on his way. Then he sprained his toe and didn't look the same for the rest of the year. However, now that he's at full strength again, the Walton that Michigan fans saw for a glimpse appears to be back. He's hitting three-pointers, draining pull-up jumpers, pushing the ball in transition, dropping no-look dimes, and soaring for rebounds -- you'll be surprised at how often the 6-foot-1 Walton will grab those tonight. And, in fact, Walton may have just played his best game as a Wolverine, posting a career-high 24 points on 8-of-10 shooting (6-of-7 3FG), seven assists, and six rebounds against Elon on Monday. Yes, the inferior competition caveat must apply, but, still, Walton looks prime to have that breakout season. Just one year later.
Two other Wolverines on which Xavier should keep an eye: Aubrey Dawkins and Duncan Robinson. Dawkins will start on the wing, while Robinson will be one of the first reserves to enter the game. Both are excellent catch-and-shoot threats from behind the arc. Last season, Dawkins made 48 percent of his threes during the conference season, which was second-best in the Big Ten, and, in the three games that Michigan has played this season including the exhibition, Robinson is 8-of-12 from three. In fact, Robinson just poured in 19 points against Elon, making all six of his shots, five of which were triples. Also, Dawkins is a high-flyer and can finish well around the rim as long as it's not off of his own dribble penetration. Both are big liabilities on defense and can be exploited, but their offensive contributions mean too much.
3.) How effective will Zak Irvin be now that he is recovering from back surgery? Factor or no?
Zak Irvin will be a factor, but Xavier should worry more about the four Wolverines I listed above. Irvin made his season debut on Monday against Elon, coming off the bench for 15 minutes. Though Irvin's presence opened up spacing for Michigan's offensive sets and his dribble penetration led to two corner threes for Duncan Robinson, he looked stiff when rising for his own shots. He went 0-for-5 and missed all three of his attempts from downtown, which usually are his bread and butter. I think his back still bothers him and he'll come off the bench tonight.
4.) How cool of a venue is the Crisler Center?
I'm probably not the right person to ask this. I live in Los Angeles, I haven't been back to Crisler since I graduated from Michigan in 2011, and the renovations for the Crisler Center were completed in 2012. By all accounts, the renovations were wonderfully done and have made Crisler Center a much more appealing place for spectators to watch a basketball game. As for the crowd and atmosphere, it can get very loud in there for high-profile games, but I don't know what to expect tonight with it starting at 9:00 the night before the Penn State game.
5.) I personally loved the Fab 5 Mitch Albom book and the subsequent documentary. How do Wolverine fans view it?
I never read Mitch Albom's Fab 5 book, but I loved the ESPN documentary. I think most Michigan fans loved the documentary as well, but, still to this day, the Fab 5 is a very polarizing topic among Michigan fans. There are some that want Michigan to recognize the Fab 5 for their accomplishments and re-hang the two Final Four banners. There are some that don't want that to happen because the Ed Martin scandal rocked the program and put it into a crater that it took 10 years out of which to dig. And there are others that just don't want to hear or talk about the Fab 5 anymore because, 22 years later, they still make it all about themselves. I'm in the third group. We still see headlines about how Jalen Rose and Chris Webber are feuding, and I just don't care anymore. There was a time -- a long time -- when the Fab 5 was the last great thing to happen to Michigan basketball. But, from 2012 to 2014, Michigan won two Big Ten tiles -- its first two since 1986 -- went to two Elite Eights, appeared in a national championship game, and had a National Player of the Year. I would rather talk about that instead.
6.) Have you had skyline chili and if so, what are your thoughts on it?
I'm sorry to say, but I have not.
7.) How do you see this game playing out?
Michigan is the favorite and has the home-court advantage, but I actually have a bad feeling about this game. Jalen Reynolds is a beast on the block -- whether it's scoring inside, rebounding the ball, or protecting the rim -- and he should feast on Michigan's big men, who have underwhelmed against inferior, undersized competition. If Reynolds can keep his cool and not get into foul trouble, he's looking at a potential 20-10 night. And Xavier as a team crashes the offensive glass well, so I wouldn't be surprised if the Musketeers get their fair share of second-chance points. Further, Michigan's defensive rotations on the perimeter leave much to be desired, and Northern Michigan and Elon found themselves with lots of outside looks. Xavier isn't the best shooting team, but Myles Davis and Remy Abell should capitalize on those.
The thing is that Xavier's defense isn't great either. The Musketeers rebound well and force turnovers, but Michigan prefers to prevent transition chances than go for misses and has taken care of the ball under John Beilein better than most teams. So Michigan will get their shots, particularly on the outside, and Michigan has the shooters to make them. Will they? I think the answer to that will decide the game.
But, as I stated, I have a bad feeling about this one for Michigan.
Xavier 71, Michigan 67.
Thanks again to Drew for your time. We always appreciate the perspective from the other side. If you want to read his preview of tonight's game check it out HERE. Great insight but severely lacking in Skyline Cheese Coneys.