The Other Big Game: Michigan takes on No. 4 Ranked UCLA in Madison Square Garden

Tonight at 9 Eastern Time Michigan tips off against the No. 4 ranked UCLA Bruins in the semifinals of the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer at Madison Square Garden. Wooooooooooooo! Get Excited!

Woo!

Ahem....

Michigan has started the season strong, posted a pair of 20+ point wins over a pair of cupcakes in the regionals of the 2K "classic." While usually it's hard to get too excited about wins over a D-II school and Northeastern (who is much better at hockey than basektball), last season Michigan was choking on these cupcakes rather than swallowing them whole. Baby steps, right?

Actually the season truly has started off well. Budding Big Ten superstan Manny Harris has led the way with a 28 point/game average while DeShawn Sims has made life miserable in the paint for the Wolverines' opponents, posting 14.5 points and almost 10 boards a game. And this is coming off the bench.

Michigan's biggest weakness so far this season is its dependence on Harris and Sims to carry the load. Only Gibson's managed to hit double digits this season besides those two. I know its just two games in, but you'd like to have at least one more person capable of filling the cylinder. Still, this team is averaging 76 a game, and everyone is putting in a bucket or two and contributing time on the floor. As long as everyone's working hard and putting in the time, man, I'll take that over last year. the team truly seems to have settled into Beilein's 1-3-1, and is playing more naturally, not fighting or thinking every move on the court. There's a more natural flow, whether it's in practice or in a game, and it's truly noticeable.

A sign that things are turning around in Ann Arbor is the deference the guys at Bruins Nation are paying Beilein, and the Wolverines' effort last season. Hell, there's even a giant post on Harris and Sims! This morning they're a little worried becuase of the Wolverines' spread offense. No. Not that one. This one:

JS need to watch out because the Wolverines run a spread offense, which gave the Bruins a lot of trouble when they took on Beilien’s well drilled West Virginia teams from few years ago (remember we lost both of our matchups against them in Westwood and then in Morgantown). Bruin Basketball Report gives us a glimpse on how Beilein runs his offense:

On offense, Beilein’s teams like to spread the court and utilize a combination of crisp backdoor cuts and kick-out precision three-point shooting, a combination that usually gives Howland’s help-defense type teams problems.

Last year the Wolverines struggled to learn the offense, and its too early to tell whether they have the right talent to make this offensive system effective in Michigan this season.

In the first two games, Michigan has attempted 38 three-point shots per contest making them at a 34.2% clip, however, if you remove Harris’s shooting then the rest of the team has shot just a mere 29% from beyond the arc.

Nonetheless, the Michigan starting line-up is littered with players who can and will make the three-point shot a weapon.

As for defense, BBR has more on their vaunted 1-3-1 zone:

Beilein has installed the same 1-3-1 zone defense at Michigan that he used at West Virginia. Its a zone that has been problematic for Howland to solve. Its not the type of defense that a UCLA team sees often and the lack of experience against it has shown up with usually Bruin players either getting trapped on the sidelines or attempting long soft lobs over the zone that allows the defense to easily recover and defend.

At times Howland has tried stationing a guard at the high-post to attack the 1-3-1 but it hasn’t been very fruitful. The most effective Bruin offense against this zone has been by attacking the zone at the seams by dribble penetration, exactly what Darren Collison did successfully last season against Michigan. The Wolverines didn’t have the quickness in the backcourt to stop Collison. But this year may be different as the Wolverines have added quality and speed to its line-up as well as the return of its two best players from last season.

This isn't to suggest that the Bruins shouldn't be heavily favored. They should. The talent differential is that vast. However, there are chinks in the armor. UCLA is Top and bottom heavy. The Bruins have a load of outstanding, but very green freshmen on their roster who are seeing significant minutes. At the top, they've got four seniors who went to the final four last year. But there ain't a lot in between. 

The early season results have shown UCLA can be a tad inconsistent. Led by their seniors Darren Collison and Josh Shipp, the Bruins dispatched Prarie View A&M easily, blowing them out by more than 20 points. But the Bruins struggled to put away a scrappy Redhawks team, eeking out a 64-59 win over Miami (OH). The Redhawks did what Michigan have to do to keep this game close, hit a high percentage of threes. Miami went 7-15 from three, and you can expect that Michigan will double those attempts. What's lost in the boxscore is that Miami is a verteran team, and that experience and age gave them a little boost over the inexperienced uber-freshmen allowing the 'Hawks to actually take a one point lead with less than a minute to go. But that's when the seniors took over and willed UCLA to the win.

Other than Shipp, and obviously Collison, keep your eyes on veterans Alfred Aboya and Michael Roll. The freshmen to watch are Malcolm Lee and Jrue Holiday.

The Wolverines will like start with Manny Harris and David Merrit at the guards, Anthony Wright and Stu Douglass at Forward, and big man Zach Gibson down low. FYI, I've heard good things about Gibson effort this season and he could turn into a pleasant surprise. Off the bench expect to see A LOT of Sims, and plenty of sniper Zack Novak and Kelvin Grady (who I really, really hope takes a big step this year).

Win or lose it's good to see that everyone seems to think Michigan's back on the right path. I certainly do. I had the great pleasure of meeting Beilein in person last winter. He's as good a man as you could hope to meet, and the kind of guy you hope coaches your kids. In a lot of ways he reminds me of Lloyd Carr, and I mean that as the highest possible compliment. Michigan basketball's coming back baby.

Oh yeah, the best thing is we get a double dose of hoops before kickoff on Saturday. Win or lose, the Wolverines will either face No. 10 Duke or Southern Illinois on Friday night. Not a bad start to the season if you ask me.

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