The first seven weeks of this season for the University of Michigan basketball team has represented arguably the strongest Wolverine team since the 1997 football team. Is that hyperbolic? Maybe, but the year is about to end and all this hyperbole is going to go bad.
The Wolverines have jumped to a 12-0 start with ease, cruising even when they haven't played well. Watching the Wolverines win glide past Kansas State and N.C. State and grit their way to a win against Pittsburgh was kind of like reading some of the lesser works of a great writer; they perhaps don't measure up to the other ones, the ones that use phrases like "tour de force" on the jacket, but all of the fundamental and nuanced marks of that particular brand of greatness are there.
Michigan has defeated its in-state challengers from the west and the east in hard-fought trials of determination and grit, games which will be passed from this generation of Michiganders to the next and the next and the next.
Michigan's final non-conference challenger, the 7-5 Central Michigan Chippewas, also comes into Ann Arbor tomorrow looking to add to the Bayeux Tapestry-like that has been Michigan's run through its Wolverine State foes.
This will be the third Big Ten opponent on CMU's schedule to date. The Chips suffered a 73-61 loss at Iowa to open the season and lost to Nebraska, 89-75, on Dec. 22 in El Paso for the WestStar Bank Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational (no, I don't know either). CMU's three other losses came at the hands of now 7-4 Utah, an 82-65 home defeat against Bradley and against Charlotte (the university, not the entire city, unfortunately). As far as wins of note go, there aren't any, really; according to RPI, #177 Wright State is CMU's biggest win so far.
CMU is currently sandwiched between EMU and WMU in the MAC West standings, and so Michigan can probably expect a similar level of quality (or lack thereof) in this third in-state tilt.
At 67 ppg, the Chips are a decent bit better than EMU on the offensive end. Five feet ten inch senior guard Kyle Randall leads the way as the team's only double-digit scorer (15.9 ppg) and by far its most-used player (139 field goal attempts). Unfortunately, he hasn't been too efficient with his attempts. Randall shoots just 38% from the field, but he does shoot a very nice 40% from beyond the arc. Still, his eFG% of 46% is nothing to write home about.
The rest of the starting five (per the Nebraska game, at least) is made up of 6'0'' freshman G Chris Fowler (not that Chris Fowler), 6'8'' freshman F John Simons, 6'6'' senior F Olivier "don't call me Laurence" Mbaigoto and 6'4'' sophomore G Austin Keel.
6'2'' freshman G Derrick Richardson Jr. also figures into the rotation (he logged 22 minutes against Nebraska). The Chips lost 6'8'' senior F Zach Saylor to injury this season, and a combination of three guards --Finis Craddock (senior), Austin Stewart (freshman) and Spencer Krannitz (freshman)-- have seemingly picked up those spare minutes.
This isn't a team with one obvious shot blocker a la EMU's Da'Shonte Riley, as the tallest Chippewa is just 6'8'' (Simons), with the second-tallest guy being a 6'7'' 203 pound freshman 3-point shooter (Hibbitts). So, like every MAC team.
If CMU does anything well, it's shooting the three: Simons shoot 42%, Mbaigoto and Fowler boast nice percentages on limited attempts (13 and 5, respectively) and reserve 6'7'' freshman F Blake Hibbitts shoots 38% on 72 attempts.
Randall clearly can shoot from the outside but seems to be far less effective from 2-point land. Hardaway/whoever needs to step up to him and not allow the three; personally, I'll take my chances with him putting it on the floor. Michigan won't get beat by two-pointers against a team like CMU.
That's not to say that Randall can't hit from two at all:
He's a little guy and seems to have a some quickness to him --as you would imagine any 5'10'' guy playing D-I basketball would need to have-- but as long as Michigan doesn't let him get too many open looks from outside, Michigan should handle this attack relatively easily.
Otherwise, with the lack of size on this CMU team, Michigan should be able to go to town on the offensive glass. This is the sort of game where a guy like Hardaway can have a stat line like 20 points, 4-6 shooting, 11-12 from the line. Hardaway can get to the basket in this game if he wants to, the only question is, well, if he wants to.
- MICHIGAN SPEED. CMU plays the fastest of the three Michigan directional schools, averaging 66.8 possessions per game (compared to Michigan's 64.7 per). Indeed, this game will be like a trip to the Michigan International Speedway (p.s. I'm joking).
- Holiday charity. The Chips boast a free throw rate of 42%, good for 59th in the country. Free throw attempts and 3-point shooting are two of the biggest equalizers in games like these; there's really no need for Michigan to foul this team too often. Michigan has been unbelievably good at keeping teams off the line thus far (1st in the nation at 19.7%), and I expect that to continue in this one.
- Offensive rebounding. Michigan has rebounded 40% of its misses to date. Despite CMU's lack of size, they've picked up a respectable, I suppose, 34% of their own misses. On the defensive end, CMU is giving up 10.8 offensive boards per game.
- On the ball D. This sort of ties into the above point about crowding Randall, but if Burke can get into point guard Chris Fowler, basketball player and not College Gameday host, Randall may never even get into position to get those good looks in the first place. Fowler has a not so great turnover percentage of 28.7%, the 12th best mark in the MAC (i.e. this is not a good thing). For comparison, Trey Burke has been quite stingy and unwilling to share the ball with opponents, boasting a sterling 18.% turnover percentage.
Ending Thoughts, Predictions, Etc.
This is another game against a directional Michigan MAC school. The Chips were FIRED UP on Wednesday night in Detroit, but I don't think that enough FIRE UP-ing can be done to make this a game unless Michigan plays the game while literally half asleep.
I thought that Michigan might come out a little sluggish and barely not cover against EMU, but clearly that didn't happen. At this point, doubting John Beilein in any respect is like doubting Greg Mattison: there's no need to do it. Michigan will be prepared and continue to do the same things it has done all season. Michigan will finish the non-conference slate on a strong note before heading to Northwestern for its Big Ten opener on Jan. 3.
Michigan 80, Central Michigan 59.